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Sunday, July 14, 2024 | Back issues
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NYC bike path attacker spared death penalty in rare trial

The same jurors who convicted Sayfullo Saipov of eight murder counts eligible for the death penalty needed to agree on the penalty unanimously for him to face capital punishment.

MANHATTAN (CN) — The Uzbek immigrant who carried out a truck attack on a lower Manhattan bike path in 2017, killing eight, will spend the rest of his life in a U.S. federal prison after a federal jury was divided on whether he should be the first killer in decades put to death in the state. 

A death sentence in federal trials requires unanimity from all 12 jurors; otherwise the sentence is life in prison. Ten hours into deliberations, the jury produced a note Monday afternoon to inform U.S. District Judge Vernon Broderick that they were deadlocked. 

Broderick will formally impose the automatic sentence of life in prison at a later date.  

Saipov, who has been imprisoned at federal detention centers in Brooklyn and Manhattan for over five years, will spend the remainder of his life in 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." 

The jury's special verdict form indicates division on the prosecution's argument that Saipov was "likely to commit criminal acts of violence in prison in the future."

Five jurors disagreed, but seven jurors backed a mitigating factor from the defense that certain aspects in Saipov's "life, personal traits, character, or background" suggest that life imprisonment without the possibility is the appropriate punishment.

All 12 jurors sat on the same panel that convicted Saipov, 35, last month in the first phase of the trial. Nine of the counts were eligible for the death penalty: eight of them for murder, and one for destruction of a motor vehicle.

U.S. Attorney Damian Williams thanked the jurors Monday afternoon for their careful consideration of the evidence and the law during the lengthy death penalty trial.

"Saipov’s crimes were predicated on ISIS’s commitment to murder innocent civilians and its disdain for rule of law," he wrote. "But, in the end, Saipov’s actions have highlighted one of the pillars of the rule of law in this country: the right to a full and fair public trial before a jury drawn from the community.

Saipov was born in Uzbekistan and immigrated to the United States in 2010. He worked for years as a long-haul trucker in Ohio and Florida — stints during which he is said to have been exposed to radical Islamic extremist propaganda in 2014. In the year he carried out the attack, Saipov was living in Paterson, New Jersey, and earned money driving for Uber. 

It was the morning of Oct. 31, 2017, when Saipov rented flatbed truck from Home Depot, which he then drove at high speed down a path along the Hudson River, mowing down bicyclists in the hours before the city’s Halloween celebrations. A police officer shot Saipov at the scene after he had crashed his truck into a school bus.

In custody he immediately exalted the Islamic State group, drawing the attention of the then-president. “NYC terrorist was happy as he asked to hang ISIS flag in his hospital room," Donald Trump had tweeted. "He killed 8 people, badly injured 12. SHOULD GET DEATH PENALTY!” 

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

At closing arguments last week, prosecutors told jurors that the premeditation of Saipov’s plan to terrorize lower Manhattan, and his ongoing dedication to the Islamic State group, weighs in favor of the harshest punishment that the law provides. 

“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, using an abbreviation for the 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.” 

Saipov’s public defender David Patton meanwhile urged jurors to unanimously choose the life sentence. 

“Meeting death with more death is not the answer here,” Patton repeated during his last pitch to the panel. “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.” 

Shortly after receiving the case on Wednesday afternoon, the jury quickly returned its first note, asking whether jurors were allowed to consider during deliberations that lethal injection is the method of federal execution, and if they could “even mention the current moratorium of execution by Attorney General Merrick Garland.” 

Judge Broderick instructed the jurors that neither subject were proper topics for their consideration, and returned them to continue deliberating. 

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

The Southern District is the state's 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.

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.

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

According the Bureau of Prisons, there are currently no scheduled federal executions. 

Saipov's defense lawyers wanted capital punishment taken off the table before the case went to trial,.

In a September 2022 letter, however, the Justice Department confirmed that U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland decided to continue to seek the death penalty. The decision was 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 Trump, who carried out 13 federal executions in six months, the most that the country has seen in 120 years. The executions under Trump were all by lethal injection at a U.S. penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana, where all federal executions take place. 

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Categories / Criminal, Trials

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