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Business News/ News / World/  New York terror attack defendant faces rare federal death-penalty trial

New York terror attack defendant faces rare federal death-penalty trial


Jurors will decide whether Sayfullo Saipov should be sentenced to death or life in prison if convicted

Sayfullo Saipov, the suspect in the New York City truck attack. (REUTERS)Premium
Sayfullo Saipov, the suspect in the New York City truck attack. (REUTERS)

An alleged terrorist charged with killing eight people in Manhattan will be on trial for his life beginning this week, in a rare case in which federal prosecutors are seeking a death sentence.

Sayfullo Saipov, an Uzbek man who lived in New Jersey, is accused of intentionally driving a truck into a bicycle path in 2017 to run over cyclists and pedestrians. He was inspired by Islamic State to carry out the attack, prosecutors say. The presiding judge will begin questioning prospective jurors Tuesday.

Mr. Saipov has pleaded not guilty. His lawyers have argued that capital punishment violates his constitutional rights, saying the sentence is rarely sought in federal cases and is applied arbitrarily. The lawyers also appealed directly to Attorney General Merrick Garland to withdraw the death penalty from the case but were turned down, court filings show.

The death-penalty trial will be the first to take place during President Biden’s administration and comes as Mr. Garland has put a moratorium on federal executions while he reviews policies and protocols put in place under the Trump administration that led to the highest rate of federal executions in over a century.

If Mr. Saipov were to be sentenced to death while the moratorium was still in place he wouldn’t be executed, although the appeals process for any sentence could take years.

Prosecutors allege that on the afternoon of Oct. 31, 2017, Mr. Saipov drove a rented flatbed truck over the George Washington Bridge and down Manhattan’s West Side Highway. When he reached lower Manhattan, he drove into the adjacent bike lane and walkway, striking people and hitting a school bus, they say.

Mr. Saipov faces eight counts of murder, 12 counts of attempted murder and one count of providing and attempting to provide material support to a designated foreign terrorist organization.

During the trial, jurors will be asked to first determine whether Mr. Saipov is guilty and then, if he is convicted of capital murder, whether to impose the death penalty or life in prison. The jury would have to reach a unanimous decision to sentence him to death.

In the penalty phase, defense lawyers typically present reasons why their client should be sentenced to life in prison instead of death.

Lawyers for Mr. Saipov have said in court filings that government evidence shows that his associates influenced his actions and exposed him to ISIS.

Lawyers who have been involved in death-penalty trials say jury selection is one of the most important—and difficult—steps. A judge, prosecutors and defense lawyers may spend weeks trying to identify unbiased jurors who haven’t heard about the case and say they are open to deciding a capital sentence. Unlike typical criminal cases in which a judge decides the sentence, the jury makes that call in a death-penalty case.

“There are potential jurors who also have a hard time sentencing someone to life without parole," said Katherine Lemire, a former Manhattan federal prosecutor and partner at Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan LLP.

Jury selection in Mr. Saipov’s case is expected to last weeks.

Federal prosecutors in the Southern District of New York are also seeking the death penalty in the coming trial of Nicholas Tartaglione, a former police officer charged with murdering four people. Mr. Tartaglione has pleaded not guilty and his lawyers have argued the death penalty is unconstitutional.

Mr. Garland hasn’t authorized U.S. attorneys to seek the death penalty in any new cases and has quietly withdrawn requests involving more than a dozen defendants, the Justice Department has said.

Between 1988 and 2021, 79 people were sentenced to death in federal court, 16 of whom were executed, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, which tracks death-penalty cases. No one has been sentenced to death in the federal district that includes Manhattan in the past 50 years.

“The public attitudes and judicial attitudes about the death penalty have shifted tremendously," said Robert Dunham, executive director of the center, which is critical of capital punishment. “As a result, you are far less likely to be sentenced to death today than if the trial took place in the 1990s."

The Saipov trial comes as the Justice Department must decide whether to seek the death penalty in other cases, including that of a gunman indicted on a charge of federal hate-crime charges in connection with a mass shooting at a Buffalo supermarket. Although Mr. Biden said while campaigning that he would seek legislation to end the federal death penalty, the Justice Department ultimately determines when to seek such a sentence.

Sadie Gurman contributed to this article.

This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text


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