Citing the perils of juror dishonesty, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit has vacated the first federal death sentence handed down in Massachusetts and ordered a new penalty proceeding.
Lawyers for defendant Gary Lee Sampson, sentenced to death in 2003 for killing two people during a violent crime spree, convinced a three-judge panel to take the rare step of vacating a jury's decision. The U.S. Justice Department had urged the court to reinstate the death sentence.
"Few accouterments of our criminal justice system are either more fundamental or more precious than the accused's right to an impartial jury," Senior Judge Bruce Selya wrote for the panel. "That right is threatened when—as in this case—juror dishonesty occurs during the voir dire process yet is not discovered until well after final judgment has entered on the jury's verdict."
No fewer than 10 of the juror's responses about her life, the First Circuit panel concluded, were "apocryphal." The court described the juror's statements about her life as "repetitive acts of dishonesty" that would have contributed to a judge's finding of demonstrated bias and, as such, the would-be juror's excusal from service.
The court recounted some of the juror's lies—including how many children she had to whether she knew anyone with a drug problem or who had been charged with a crime. The woman's name was not published in the court's 42-page unanimous opinion. The dishonesty came to light post-trial.
A lawyer for Sampson, William McDaniels, of counsel to Williams & Connolly, could not be reached for comment. Neither could assistant U.S. attorney Mark Quinlivan, who argued for the government.
During the First Circuit’s oral argument in May, Quinlivan said a ruling against the government could "open the floodgates in both criminal and civil cases to parties seeking to overturn verdicts after the fact." Quinlivan called the Sampson case a "big game."
Carmen Ortiz, the U.S. attorney for Boston, said in a formal statement that the government would meet with the families of the victims to explore options. "We remain committed, however, to seeing that justice is done in this case," Ortiz said.
Selya, who's served on the First Circuit since 1986, heard the Sampson case with Chief Judge Sandra Lynch and Senior Judge Kermit Lipez.
"This case is a stark reminder of the consequences of juror dishonesty," Selya wrote. "Jurors who do not take their oaths seriously threaten the very integrity of the judicial process."
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