The terrorism trial of Sayfullo Saipov is this week expected to conclude and head to jurors, who will decide whether the Uzbek immigrant will be the first person ordered to face the federal death penalty during the Biden administration.
‘A bike path into his battlefield’
Prosecutors say Saipov ploughed a rented Home Depot truck onto Manhattan’s crowded West Side bicycle path in 2017, killing eight and injuring numerous others in an Islamic State-inspired plot. The attack was the deadliest act of terrorism in New York City since 9/11.
During his closing arguments this week, federal prosecutor Jason Richman said the alleged terrorist “turned a bike path into his battlefield.”
Mr Saipov, who came to the US on a work visa in 2010 from Uzbekistan, has admitted to the attack, and his attorney argues only that Saipovr didn’t carry out his plan at the behest of Isis and rather was acting on his own, a distinction which could affect the severity of the sentence.
“If you’re planning to die in an attack, you are not planning to join an organization,” New York City public defender David Patton said this week. “I will admit that there is something strange about discussing the possible explanations for an awful crime that is inexplicable and senseless, but it’s what he’s charged with, and it’s the decision you’re being asked to make.”
Saipov didn’t testify, and his defence called no witnesses.
Victims speak out
Prosecutors presented evidence that they said showed Saipov believed he was acting in furtherance of a larger Isis plot, including a jailhouse phone call where he called himself a “soldier of the caliphate,” and his request to hang an Isis flag in his hospital room.
The trial also featured firsthand accounts from survivors of the truck attack.
Marion Van Reeth, who was visiting New York from Belgium when the 2017 incident occured, described waking up in a hospital bed to find she had lost her legs.
“It’s a terrible shock, of course. I couldn’t believe it was true. Of course I had a lot of pain, but I didn’t realize I lost both legs,” Ms Van Reeth testified. Friedel Decadt, also of Belgium, described watching the suffering of her sister Ann-Laure, who ultimately died of her injuries.
“Her gaze was lifeless. She just stared up into the air and there was lots of blood gushing out of her mouth,” Ms Decadt said.
A man with ‘monsters inside’
Saipov’s journey to America started on an optimistic note, after he won the green card “lottery” and came to the US on a work visa as a 22-year-old.
The Uzbek immigrant came from a well-off family in the capital Tashkent and practised traditional Islam, without any hints of extremism, officials have said.
Once arriving in the US, however, Saipov struggled to find work in the hotel industry, where he was employed in his home country, and instead settled into a rootless existence as a truck driver, the New York Times reports.
Those who knew him described him as having a poor knowledge of Islam and a “vulgar character” as well as “monsters inside”.
“I always thought deep in my soul that he would be jailed for beating someone or insulting someone,” Mirrakhmat Muminov, a truck driver who knew Saipov, told the paper. “He had a vulgar character.”
A test of Biden’s contradictory stance on the death penalty
It’s not just the New Jersey resident who is on trial.
The Biden administration’s confusing, seemingly hypocritical stance on the death penalty is under heavy scrutiny. Joe Biden has said he’s against executions, but his Justice Department is still seeking the death penalty for the Uzbek immigrant.
President Biden, who was instrumental in crafting numerous “tough on crime” policies as a senator in the 1990s, made the surprising announcement that he was against the death penalty on the 2020 campaign trail, explaining he was renouncing his past support because a mountain of evidence about wrongful convictions now showed “we cannot ensure we get death penalty cases right every time.”
What’s more, a year later, the Justice Department announced in July 2021 it was putting federal executions on hold as the government reviewed its capital punishment policies, following a historic execution spree under Donald Trump.
“Serious concerns have been raised about the continued use of the death penalty across the country, including arbitrariness in its application, disparate impact on people of color, and the troubling number of exonerations in capital and other serious cases,” attorney general Merrick Garland wrote in a memo at the time explaining the moratorium.
“He assured me that on his watch, there would be no federal executions,” Representative Ayanna Pressley told The Independent last year.
The president’s personal discomfort around executions hasn’t stopped the Justice Department from pursuing the death penalty in a number of terrorism and domestic extremism cases, including the Manhattan truck attack, as well as the prosecution against Boston Bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and white supremacist church gunman Dylann Roof, even though, as The Independent has reported, some victims’ families in both cases have expressed their wishes that the government refrain from using the death penalty.
The Biden DoJ has also continued defending death sentences ordered under other administrations, too.
“They have been consistently inconsistent,” death penalty expert Professor Austin Sarat of Amherst College told The Independent.
In July of 2021, the same month Mr Garland announced the execution moratorium, federal prosecutors praised an appeals court for affirming the death sentence against Tsarnaev.
“The jury carefully considered each of respondent’s crimes and determined that capital punishment was warranted for the horrors that he personally inflicted,” Acting Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar wrote in a brief at the time.
The White House told Reuters at the time that Joe Biden still opposes the death penalty, but the DoJ “has independence regarding such decisions.”
“President Biden has made clear that he has deep concerns about whether capital punishment is consistent with the values that are fundamental to our sense of justice and fairness,” a spokerson told the wire service.
In March of 2022, the Supreme Court further upheld the Boston Bomber’s sentence.
Roof’s prosecution followed much the same trajectory. In 2021, a month after the moratorium was announced, a federal prosecutor celebrated an appeals court upholding the white supremacist’s death sentence, calling it a sign that “justice will be served for the victims, the survivors and their families.”
In October of 2022, the Supreme Court rejected an appeal challenging Roof’s execution.
Critics argue Mr Biden is saying one thing and doing another. The president has said he hopes to seek legislation outlawing the death penalty, though he’s expended virtually no public political capital pushing for such a priority.
What’s more, according to Robert Dunham of the Death Penalty Information Center, even without a new law, the president could still “end the federal death penalty for a generation” by commuting the sentences of the 44 federal death row inmates to life in prison.
Otherwise, the president’s stance won’t mean much to future death row residents once he leaves office.
“The Biden executions will take place under future administrations, but make no mistake, they will be Biden executions,” Mr Dunham told The Independent.
Once the jury decides on a conviction, the trial will move to the punishment phase, where the 12-member panel will decide on whether to impose a capital sentence.
The penalty phase could stretch as long as another month, the New York Times