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Jurors scouted for NYC death penalty trial on bike path attack

Sayfullo Saipov was arrested at the scene of a truck attack that injured 11 and killed eight but has pleaded not guilty.

MANHATTAN (CN) — The long-delayed trial of an Uzbek immigrant who killed eight and injured 11 when he plowed a truck down a picturesque Manhattan bike path on Halloween 2017 got underway Tuesday with in-person jury selection.

“It is important that you understand the law never requires the imposition of a sentence of death and never assumes that any defendant found guilty of committing capital murder must be sentenced to death,” U.S. District Judge Vernon S. Broderick advised a group of prospective jurors this morning, in preparation for a death-penalty trial rarely seen in New York.

Though the state has not executed a prisoner since 1963, federal prosecutions fall under a different jurisdiction.

Broderick is presiding here over a federal indictment that includes eight counts of murder in aid of racketeering. A guilty verdict for the 34-year-old Sayfullo Saipov would then trigger an additional penalty phase in which the jury will decide whether to impose the death penalty or a life sentence without any possibility of parole.

Saipov was denied bail ahead of trial and has spent the last five years in federal custody. Facing a trial that is expected to last through January 2023, Saipov declined to attend the voir dire portion of jury selection, which is being conducted in person. The process to narrow the pool of over 800 New Yorkers down to 12 jurors and six alternates in the Southern District of New York began two months ago with written questionnaires.

Shortly before noon Tuesday, Judge Broderick called the first 11 prospective jurors to a courtroom on the 24th floor of the Daniel Patrick Moynihan U.S. Courthouse in Lower Manhattan. The Obama appointee warned the group that serving on Saipov's trial will confront them with what he called the “unique, individualized moral decision between the death penalty and life in prison without the possibility of release.”

In addition to murder, Saipov is charged with providing material support to the U.S.-designated terrorist organization. He extolled the Islamic State group during an opportunity to address the court in 2018.

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

The decision belies 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 country has seen in 120 years.

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.

Last week, the American Civil Liberties Union and New York Civil Liberties Union filed an amicus brief to delay Saipov’s trial over the failure by prosecutors to provide his defense with potentially mitigating evidence.

“Everyone is entitled to a fair day in court, and nowhere is this more important than a capital case where the stakes are life and death,” Donna Lieberman, director of the NYCLU, said in an accompanying statement. “A fair day in court requires defendants get to see the evidence against them, but here the government hid what it had.”

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