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Wednesday, July 24, 2024 | Back issues
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Feds make final push for execution of driver behind NYC truck attack

Closing arguments brought passionate arguments over the death penalty in a state that has not executed a prisoner, federal or not, in decades.

MANHATTAN (CN) — A federal jury of 12 New Yorkers will begin deliberations Wednesday on whether the perpetrator of a Manhattan bike path rampage warrants the maximum penalty, making him the first person executed in New York since 1963.

Sentencing will be decided by the same panel of jurors from the Southern District of New York who found Sayfullo Saipov guilty on all 28 counts in the first phase of the trial. Nine of those convictions — eight counts of murder in aid of racketeering activity, and one count of violence and destruction of motor vehicles — are eligible for the death penalty in the penalty phase that began in mid-February.

Saipov carried out the attack on the morning of Halloween 2017. Prosecutors said he drove a rented truck down the West Side bike path in lower Manhattan in a deliberate bid to “maximize devastation and fear."

“This attack was not a spontaneous fit of rage; it was carefully planned and executed by a man who was committed to the long game of serving ISIS," Assistant U.S. Attorney Amanda Houle said in her closing argument, using an abbreviation for the Islamic State group, a designated terrorist organization. "There were so many points along the way where the defendant had the opportunity to stand down; he chose again and again to keep practicing to push forward. That makes him more culpable and it makes his crimes worse.”

Houle briefly showed jurors crime-scene photographs from the bike path, identifying each of the eight murder victims by their full name as the image of their bloody and lifeless body appeared. “That brutality is exactly what the defendant intended,” Houle concluded.

She similarly read the names of the 18 people who were injured, one for each count of attempted murder, and showed jurors hospital photographs, videos of their pained recoveries, and X-rays of their injuries, along with short summaries of the traumatic toll the attacks had on victims and their family members.

Saipov, now 35, selected the flat-bed truck as his weapon, Houle noted, as directed by Islamic State group propaganda, “to crush crowds of innocent people and turn joy in to sorrow.”

Prosecutors say Saipov remains unrepentant for deaths and chaos he caused. Houle told jurors he still considers himself “a victorious solider for the caliphate of ISIS.” Even from behind prison walls, he remains “committed to jihad and ISIS and violence," she insisted.

“Remember there is such pain and suffering here because that it exactly what he wanted — and he delights in that,” Houle said at the conclusion of her summation. “He has put himself here, and his choices that call for the most significant punishment that the law provides: a sentence of death.”

A death sentence requires unanimity from all jurors; otherwise the sentence is life in prison.

Saipov’s federal defender David Patton urged jurors, or at the very least one juror, to find that moral outcome in the case is to choose life in prison.

“I hope that you decide as a unanimous group that the right thing to do here is a life sentence, but it need not be because it is such a unique individual decision,” he said.

“Meeting death with more death is not the answer here,” Patton repeated during the defense’s summation. “It is not necessary to do justice, and so we are asking you to choose hope over fear; justice over vengeance; and in the end, life over death.”

Much of the defense’s closing arguments on Tuesday afternoon was spent depicting the bleak conditions of confinement that await Saipov in a concrete cell of the most restricted unit at ADX Florence, a super-maximum-security prison near Florence, Colorado — the high desert facility so secure and so remote that it known as the "Alcatraz of the Rockies."

Patton also described how ISIS targets people like Saipov, who were born in Uzbekistan, through Uzbek-language propaganda. Their spiral down digital wormholes of extremist materials is further accelerated by online algorithms, he noted.

ISIS expert Noah Tucker explained at trial, testimony that Patton recalled for the jury Tuesday, how the highly authoritarian government in Uzbekistan is responsible for the censorship of the country’s state-run media outlets, creating a system that allows ISIS and its supporters to disseminate propaganda online in Saipov’s native language.

Saipov immigrated to the United States in 2010. At the time of the attack, he was living in Paterson, New Jersey, an occasional rideshare driver on Uber, after stints in Ohio and Florida working as a long-haul trucker.

The prosecution and Saipov’s defense lawyers are in agreement that his exposure to radical Islamic propaganda began in this time period, probably three years before the attack.

Saipov declined the invitation last week to speak on his own behalf at trial. Twice, he responded “not now” when U.S. District Judge Vernon S. Broderick asked if he wanted to testify. Afterward, the defense rested.

Next year will mark two decades since New York state abolished the capital punishment, but federal prosecutions fall under a different jurisdiction. But even while considered constitutional, federal death penalty cases in the Empire State are extremely rare.

The Southern District is the only jurisdiction to have brought capital trials in the last seven decades, resulting in the deaths of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg by the electric chair in 1953 followed a year later by the state's last federal execution, that of Gerhard A. Puff, who killed an FBI agent during a bank robbery.

Eddie Lee Mays became the last state prisoner put to death in 1963 before New York abolished capital punishment.

The intervening years have seen a handful of federal death penalty trials, all of them unsuccessful. Defendants in these cases have included drug dealers as well al-Qaida operatives convicted of conspiring with Osama bin Laden in the 1998 bombings of two U.S. Embassies in East Africa.

Saipov’s public defenders had asked the government to take capital punishment off the table, but prosecutors confirmed in a letter in September 2022 that U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland "decided to continue to seek the death penalty."

The decision belies the Biden administration’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 had seen over a century.

Trump had been vocal about his desire to execute Saipov immediately following the defendant's Oct. 31, 2017, arrest.

“NYC terrorist was happy as he asked to hang ISIS flag in his hospital room," the then-president had tweeted. "He killed 8 people, badly injured 12. SHOULD GET DEATH PENALTY!”

Judge Broderick ruled back in 2019 that Trump’s remarks were "perhaps ill-advised" but not necessarily an undue pressure tactic on Justice Department to seek the death penalty.

Saipov's jury is expected to begin deliberations on Wednesday following Judge Broderick’s lengthy instructions on the charges in the morning.

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