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Jury hears opening arguments in NYC truck attacker’s death penalty trial

A man inspired by the Islamic State group faces the first federal capital punishment trial of the Biden administration.

MANHATTAN (CN) — The long-awaited death penalty trial of the man charged with killing eight people with a truck on a New York City bike path in 2017 commenced Monday.

Federal prosecutors described Uzbek immigrant Sayfullo Saipov’s terror attack on pedestrians along a West Side bike path in Lower Manhattan as “a scene of destruction and horror.”

It was Halloween day as Saipov sped a Home Depot pickup truck at up to 66 miles per hour along the bicycle path, mowing down pedestrians and cycling tourists from Belgium and Argentina before crashing into the side of a school bus, Assistant U.S. Attorney Alexander Nuo Li told jurors Monday morning.

The attack “crushed their bodies, sent them flying, left them bleeding to die,” Li said during the prosecution’s 20-minute opening argument. “He did it for ISIS, the brutal terrorist organization that tells its followers to kill innocent civilians around the world and in the United States.”

Saipov was charged in a 28-count indictment with, among other offenses, eight counts of murder in aid of racketeering and 18 counts of attempted murder.

A guilty verdict on the eight counts of murder in aid of racketeering activity for Saipov, who is now 34, would trigger an additional penalty phase of the trial in which the jury will decide whether to impose the death penalty or a life sentence without any possibility of parole.

Prosecutors told jurors that Saipov specifically chose Oct. 31 as the date of the attack and Lower Manhattan as the location  “to maximize the number of people he kill and maim for ISIS.”

Had Saipov not been subdued — an NYPD officer shot him after the truck crashed into the school bus — the Department of Justice says he intended to continue the vehicular murder spree across to the east side of Lower Manhattan by the Brooklyn Bridge, just a few blocks away from the Manhattan federal courthouse where the trial is being held.

Just before he was taken down by responding officers, Saipov waved realistic-looking fake guns while shouting the Muslim prayer phrase “Allahu akbar," meaning “God is most great.”

Li told jurors that the prosecution will show them encrypted messages with violent images and instructions from the Islamic State terrorist network.

Highlighting a piece of digital propaganda that included one bloody car tire paired with the caption, “Run over them without mercy,” Li noted: “Just as the defendant would eventually do when he used a truck to run over innocent civilians."

Investigators recovered on two phones from the truck containing other instructions from the Islamic State group, including the jihadist mandate: “Find an American and crush him with your car.”

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

He was denied bail ahead of trial and has spent the last five years in solitary confinement at federal detention facilities in Manhattan and Brooklyn. Facing a trial that is expected to last through March 2023, Saipov declined to attend the voir dire portion of jury selection.

During a hearing in June 2018, Saipov disregarded U.S. District Judge Vernon Broderick’s warnings about his right against self-incrimination and launched into a 10-minute diatribe extolling the Islamic State.

Saipov’s defense lawyers do not dispute that their client committed the deadly attack or that he was inspired to kill by the Islamic State group’s slick propaganda and sophisticated recruitment. What they are challenging are the allegations as to motive, denying that Saipov committed the murders for the “particular purpose” of becoming a member of ISIS.

“If this case was only about murder and attempted murder and assault, there would be nothing for you to decide, it would be open and shut,” federal defender David Patton told jurors during the defense’s 30-minute opening argument on Monday afternoon.

 “He had no real connection to ISIS the organization, other than being on the receiving end of a bunch of the messages. And he did not walk away from this attack and become a member of ISIS or any organization. He expected to die,” Saipov’s lawyer explained. "He expected he would become a martyr.

“He thought he was thoroughly convinced that a true Muslim was obligated to avenge the killings around the world and bombings and drone strikes and other activity and to become one of the mujahideen, a warrior for Islam.

“You will find that, of all of the inconceivable reasons that Mr. Saipov did this, joining ISIS — joining any organization — was not one of them,”  Patton said at the conclusion of his opening statement for the defense.

Jury selection in the death penalty case began in October 2022 and lasted nearly three months, finally concluding in early January 2023. The Obama-appointed Broderick is requiring the entire courtroom to wear face masks for the duration of the trial due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Saipov’s defense lawyers had asked the government to take capital punishment off the table, but prosecutors confirmed in a September 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.

Trump had been vocal about his desire to execute Saipov immediately after the defendant was arrested. “NYC terrorist was happy as he asked to hang ISIS flag in his hospital room," the then-president had tweeted about the first Jihadist attack on American soil during his presidency. "He killed 8 people, badly injured 12. SHOULD GET DEATH PENALTY!”

Broderick ruled 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.

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