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Capital trial of NYC bike path killer enters penalty phase

Sentencing the Manhattan bike path terrorist to a historic death penalty will require unanimity from a New York jury. Otherwise a sentence of life in federal prison will be imposed.

MANHATTAN (CN) — The first death penalty trial of the Biden administration entered the punishment phase on Monday afternoon, with a New York jury reassembling to decide between the death penalty or life in prison for the man who committed an ISIS-inspired truck attack.

Every individual on the panel sat on the same jury last month that convicted Sayfullo Saipov, 35, of having intentionally driven a truck at high speed down a path along the Hudson River on Oct. 31, 2017, fatally mowing down eight bicyclists on a sunny morning hours before the city’s Halloween celebrations.

If the jury does not collectively agree to sentence Saipov to death, he will serve out the rest of his life at ADX Florence, a super-maximum-security prison near Florence, Colorado — the high desert facility so secure and so remote that it has been called the "Alcatraz of the Rockies."

During preliminary instructions to jurors on Monday, U.S. District Judge Vernon Broderick said the second phase “amounts to a second trial” and requires jurors to use their “uniquely individual moral judgment.”

“If they’re not unanimous to death, then life will be imposed,” Broderick explained in court Monday morning.

President Joe Biden had made pledge on the 2020 campaign trail not to seek capital punishment, but Saipov's trial in the Southern District of New York marked the first of his term eligible for the federal death penalty

Saipov was charged in a 28-count indictment with, among other offenses, nine death penalty-eligible counts: eight counts of murder in aid of racketeering, along with one count of violence and destruction of a motor vehicle.

The specific murder in aid of racketing counts allege that Saipov committed the attack “for the purpose of gaining entrance to ISIS," another name for the Islamic State group, a designated terrorist organization.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Amanda Houle told jurors Monday that the government was seeking “the most severe penalty that the law provides.”

She reminded jurors about Saipov's lack of remorse since he committed the 2017 attack. “No regard for the value of the lives that he has destroyed,” she said.

Prosecutors insist that Saipov has not abandoned his deadly commitment to a religious jihad for ISIS.

“He is dangerous and he continues to pose a threat,” Houle said during the prosecution's 18-minute opening statement, recounting Saipov’s threats to slit the throats of corrections officers while awaiting trial in federal custody.

Born in Uzbekistan, Saipov immigrated to the United States in 2010 and was living in Paterson, New Jersey, at the time of attack. He had previously worked as a long-haul trucker in Ohio and Florida, but he was driving for Uber while living in New Jersey at the time of the attack in 2017.

During the first phase of the trial, federal prosecutors argued Saipov was initially radicalized by exposure extreme Islamic propaganda videos he watched on his phone.

Federal defender David M. Stern made no attempt Monday to dispute the prosecutors’ narrative of Saipov's radicalization by ISIS propaganda and guilt for the brutal bike path attack. “Sayfullo Saipov did a terrible, terrible thing, and whatever you decide, he will pay a terrible price,” he said. “His death in prison is certain, only the cause and timing is to be determined.”

Stern urged jurors to sentence Saipov to life in prison so that “justice will prevail over barbarism.”

“The government will say what he did deserves death, they will say death begets death,” Stern said. “We’ll say that the cycle of death has to stop somewhere.”

Stern said Saipov’s isolation as an Uzbek immigrant spending many hours alone as a long-haul trucker “fit the profile of someone ISIS could recruit.”

“He was not sophisticated enough to be wary” of the “loathsome ISIS propaganda” he absorbed during those lengthy and lonely drives, the federal defender said.

Saipov’s defense plans to call several Bureau of Prisons employees to detail the bleak day-to-day life of imprisonment that imates face at ADX Florence. “He will lose almost everything that makes life sweet. He’ll spend 23 hours a day in his cell alone,” Stern said. "A cement bed, a single cement stool, a metal door, and a window that looks out on nothing," he envisioned.

The last time a federal inmate was executed in a New York case was Gehrard Puff in 1954, who was executed by electric chair at Sing Sing Prison for killing an FBI agent in the lobby of a Manhattan hotel while on the lam from a bank robbery.

Although Republican Governor George Pataki reinstated New York’s death penalty in 1995, no person has been executed in the state since 1963. The last inmate to be executed by the state of New York was 34-year-old Eddie Lee Mays of Harlem, who had been convicted on state criminal count for murdering a woman with a pistol while robbing a tavern on Fifth Avenue.

Jury selection in Saipov’s trial began in August 2022 and continued through January 2023. The penalty phase of the trial is expected to extend into March.

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