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Family of truck terrorist testify in his defense at NYC death penalty trial

The penalty phase of a trial underway since January hurtled toward its end with emotional testimony from the mother and the youngest sister of the Uzbek man convicted of a deadly 2017 truck attack in Manhattan.

MANHATTAN (CN) — Two family members of Sayfullo Saipov spoke in his defense Wednesday, giving jurors a tearful composite of the man they knew before he became radicalized by the Islamic State group and went on to kill eight people as they spent the morning of Halloween 2017 on the bike path along New York City's West Side Highway.

The same federal jury that convicted Saipov in January of 28 criminal counts will begin deliberations next week on whether he should be sentenced to death, an extraordinarily uncommon punishment in a state that hasn’t had an execution in 60 years.

Saipov, 35, had a rented flatbed truck from Home Depot to carry out his high-speed attack along the Hudson River five years ago, mowing down pedestrians and cycling tourists from Belgium, Argentina and across the United States before crashing into the side of a school bus.

In a bid to have Saipov given a life sentence at a maximum-security prison, his mother and sister told jurors Wednesday that they accept they will never see him in person again but that his life still has meaning.

“I will know that he is alive, and I will know that he is breathing with me," Muqaddas Saipov said of her firstborn child and only son, speaking through an Uzbek language interpreter. "And then I will tell his children that he is alive, and I think that after many years he will come out as old Sayfullo.”

Delivering 44 minutes of tearful testimony under questioning by federal defender David Stern, Saipov's mother said she wished she had tried harder when visiting him in the United States in 2017, her last trip before the deadly attack, to have him return with her back to Tashkent, the Uzbekistan capital city.

“He looked tired. His eyes looked tired, and he had a long beard,” she said. “If I said, ‘Take your family and come to Tashkent,’ maybe this wouldn’t have happened."

Saipov's mother recounted as well her reaction of fainting and having to go to the hospital after seeing her son on television in a news broadcast about the attack. “I didn’t believe [it],” she said, wiping tears from her face. “He is a very kind boy and I didn’t believe that he would do something like this.

“I love him very much,” she continued. “He is my son, and I love him more than my life, and he is a very kind son. And this kind of son [is] difficult to find."

Since Saipov's arrest — he was shot and apprehended by police at the scene after crashing into the bus — his mother has been unable before now to secure a visa that would let her visit the United States.  

“They said you will see America only in dreams now,” she said.

The wreckage of a rented Home Depot pickup truck is seen on Chambers Street at the scene of a fatal terrorist attack on Oct. 31, 2017. Sayfullo Saipov plowed the truck through pedestrians and cyclists on a bike path on the West side of lower Manhattan. (Department of Justice via Courthouse News Service)

Like the defendant's mother, his 22-year-old sister, Munisadonu Gulomova, spoke to the jury Wednesday about the family's wish for him to “come back to his previous condition of the Sayfullo we know.”

“I believe that, in his soul, deep inside, the old Sayfullo still exists,” said Gulomova, who testified in a white tunic and headscarf.

Gulomova is the youngest member of their family. When their father moved to the United States for work, Saipov took care of her along with her mother and two sisters — “like a father,” she said.

Saipov moved to the United States in 2010, finding work as a long-haul truck driver. Gulomova said he tasked her with taking and sending him photos and videos of the family and life he left behind.

The defense accompanied the testimony from Saipov's family with photographs, including one showing Saipov dressed in a red Santa Claus costume, which his sister recalled was a joke he performed during their New Year’s celebration, complete with gifts for each sibling.

Federal prosecutors declined to cross-examine either of the women who testified on Wednesday.

Last week, the jury heard from the defendant's father, who was the first of the relatives called as a defense witness in the federal death penalty trial.

“My soul was destroyed," Habibulloh Saipov said when Stern asked how he reacted to his son’s attack.

U.S. District Judge Vernon Broderick directed each of the witnesses not to address Saipov directly in the courtroom.

Saipov nodded Wednesday morning during his mother and sister’s testimonies but declined to testify in his own defense, answering, “not now,” when Judge Broderick asked if we wished to take the stand.

Saipov's jury was given a two-week break after delivering their guilty verdict before they had to return to the Manhattan federal courthouse for the penalty phase.

Any outcome less than a unanimous vote for death will mean Saipov will spend the rest of his life in prison.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Amanda Houle told jurors last month Saipov has not abandoned his deadly commitment to a religious jihad for ISIS and remains unrepentant and dangerous, even behind bars. Even in custody, Houle noted, Saipov once smashed his prison cell door while screaming about slitting the throats of guards.

Saipov’s defense lawyers wanted capital punishment taken off the table, but prosecutors confirmed in a September 2022 letter that U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland "decided to continue to seek the death penalty."

The decision is at odds with Garland’s reinstatement one year earlier of a moratorium on federal executions — a policy nearly identical to one put in place by former President Barack Obama but lifted by former President Donald Trump, who carried out 13 federal executions in six months, the most that the country has seen in 120 years.

Judge Broderick, an Obama appointee, expects jurors will hear closing arguments next week.

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