MANHATTAN (CN) – Generously describing the tweets by the president as “perhaps ill-advised,” a federal judge refused Thursday to take capital punishment off the table for the worst terrorist attacks in New York City since 9/11.
“NYC terrorist was happy as he asked to hang ISIS flag in his hospital room,” President Donald Trump wrote on Oct. 31, 2017, the morning that Sayfullo Saipov used a rented pickup truck to mow down eight people, most of them tourists, enjoying the Hudson River bike path in Lower Manhattan.
“He killed 8 people, badly injured 12,” Trump’s tweet continued. “SHOULD GET DEATH PENALTY!”
Saipov’s attorney David Patton, the head of the Federal Defenders of New York, called Trump’s statement unprecedented.
“This case appears to be the first time in the history of the federal death penalty where the President of the United States clamored for a death sentence immediately after the defendant’s arrest and/or advocated for politically based charging decisions,” Patton wrote last December.
On Thursday, however, U.S. District Judge Vernon Broderick found that characterization not quite accurate: Back in 1995, after the Oklahoma City bombing, former President Bill Clinton and his Attorney General Janet Reno announced their intention to seek the death penalty against plotter Terry Nichols.
“While [Trump’s] comments are arguably more inflammatory than President Clinton’s statements relating to Nichols, Saipov has offered no evidence that the president’s remarks impacted the attorney general’s decision-making process in any way,” Broderick wrote.
Patton argued that Trump’s all-caps death-penalty agitation stands in a class of its own.
Not only did Trump scream “DEATH PENALTY” twice on Twitter, the 45th president also has embarked on a longstanding campaign to delegitimize the Russia investigation and discredit Department of Justice officials for independent actions he dislikes, Patton noted.
This pattern was not enough to persuade Judge Broderick that former Attorney General Jeff Sessions approved the death-penalty charges for fear of Trump’s retaliation.
“This assertion is pure speculation made without a scintilla of direct factual support, and without more, it is insufficient to warrant interference by this court with the attorney general’s presumptive authority to make charging decisions,” he wrote.
Trump’s itchy Twitter fingers could still spare Saipov in the sentencing phase if he is convicted.
“There is no dispute that Saipov has and will continue to have a wide range of statutory and constitutional protections available to him, particularly if his trial ultimately proceeds to the penalty phase,” the 12-page opinion states.
The U.S. Attorney’s office for the Southern District of New York and Patton both declined to comment.