MANHATTAN (CN) — A New York jury wasted little time deliberating before convicting Uzbek immigrant Sayfullo Saipov on all counts Thursday, eight of which are death-penalty-eligible murder counts, for brutally plowing through tourists on a bike path in Lower Manhattan.
The guilty verdicts trigger a second phase on punishment in which the same panel of jurors will consider whether to impose a sentence of life in prison or execution. A death sentence requires unanimity, otherwise the sentence is life in prison. Jurors will get a one-week break before they must return to the courthouse on February 6 for the second phase of the trial.
They reached Thursday's verdict unanimously, less than 24 hours after the start of deliberations Wednesday at 4:30 p.m.
President Joe Biden had made campaign pledge not to seek capital punishment, but Saipov's trial in the Southern District of New York marked the first of his term eligible for the federal death penalty.
Saipov, 34, does not deny committing the murderous rampage on October 31, 2017, that left eight dead and a dozen more seriously injured, nor does he contest that he was inspired by other attacks for which the Islamic State group claimed responsibility.
While the Uzbek immigrant did not testify in his own defense at trial, his lawyer told jurors that Saipov said he carried out the religious martyrdom attack because he felt that the United States was killing innocent Muslims and he wanted “to do his share for” the caliphate.
Saipov’s admissions notwithstanding, federal prosecutors showed jurors substantial evidence at trial, including video surveillance from Saipov's rental of a flatbed truck at a Home Depot in Passaic, New Jersey, on to his journey across the George Washington Bridge as captured by traffic cameras, and ending with the outdoor security camera footage that showed the moment the speeding truck steered off the West Side Highway and into the adjacent bike path.
The government’s direct case in the first phase spanned two weeks and included testimony from surviving victims, family members, law enforcement officers and experts.
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 in aid of racketeering.
The specific murder in aid of racketing counts allege that Saipov committed the attack “for the purpose of gaining entrance to ISIS." Saipov’s federal defender David Patton urged jurors on Tuesday to find Saipov not guilty on that point.
“He did it for Allah and Islam,” Patton told jurors during closing arguments on Tuesday.
During the prosecution’s summation, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jason Richman told jurors Saipov was smiling when he asked to hang the flag of the Islamic State group in his Manhattan hospital room. Richman said jurors should convict the defendant of all charges.
When Saipov finally stopped his motorized rampage, Richman noted, it was because he had struck a small school bus, injuring children. Otherwise, the prosector said, Saipov planned to head eastward to the Brooklyn Bridge and kill as many people as he could there. Saipov was arrested after he pointed realistic-looking pellet and paintball guns at a police officer, who shot him.
Saipov was born in Uzbekistan and emigrated to the United States in 2010. After previous stints as a long-haul trucker in Ohio and Florida, Saipov had settled in Paterson, New Jersey, by 2017 and earned money driving for Uber.
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 group.
The careful jury selection process in the death penalty case took nearly three months, having begun in October 2022.
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.
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