Lawyers for the man charged with killing eight people on a Manhattan bike path last year say that President Donald Trump’s swift calls on social media for their client’s execution have injected “bloodthirst” and “revenge” into the government’s bid to seek the death penalty for their client.
Sayfullo Saipov, 30, faces 22 counts for allegedly mowing down pedestrians and cyclists with a rented Home Depot truck in an Oct. 31, 2017, attack on a popular bike path that runs along the West Side Highway in Lower Manhattan; the charges include eight counts of murder in aid of racketeering.
In the days following the attack, Trump tweeted that Saipov “SHOULD GET DEATH PENALTY” and that the case against him “should move fast,” statements that Saipov’s lawyers argue were “uninformed and full of rage” and that have influenced prosecutors’ push for capital punishment.
Saipov’s case is the first in a decade in which federal prosecutors in New York have sought the death penalty; the last time an execution for a federal case from New York was carried out was 1953, when Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were put to death for spying for the Soviet Union.
And observers say that bringing a capital case against Saipov will bring challenges for both prosecutors and defense attorneys alike: juries across the country have shown a growing reluctance to put defendants to death, often opting instead for sentencing the convicted to life in prison without the possibility of parole, said Chris Tritico of Houston-based Tritico Rainey, who represented Timothy McVeigh in his conviction and execution for killing 168 people in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.
But Tritico, who is not involved with the Saipov case, also said that politics also may continue to play a role in the case, which is not expected to go to trial for at least another year and which Tritico said would likely have a voir dire process that would drag on for months. Trump has used anti-immigrant rhetoric in his public statements, which could make it more difficult for Saipov, who was born in Uzbekistan, to get a fair trial.
“Forget the president calling for him to get the death sentence,” Tritico said. “The president has spent two years galvanizing everyone in the country against anyone who wasn’t born here.”
Prosecutors from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York allege that Saipov was inspired to carry out the attack by Islamic State and that he carried out the attack on Halloween because he believed there would be more people out on the streets.
Saipov initially pleaded not guilty to the counts against him but his lawyers filed papers in January stating that he would plead guilty if the government decided not to pursue a capital case.
In March, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a memo containing guidelines for federal prosecutors to seek the death penalty for drug-related offenses.
In a motion filed last month expressing their intent to seek the death penalty for Saipov, prosecutors said that the death penalty is justified because he intentionally killed the eight victims of the alleged attack, injured 12 others, engaged in the alleged acts of violence in support of IS and lacks remorse, among other factors.
Assistant U.S. Attorneys Andrew Beaty, Amanda Houle and Matthew Laroche are prosecuting the case.
In September, Saipov’s lawyers filed a motion to preclude the death penalty for their client and, this week, filed papers arguing that pursuing the death penalty for Saipov based on Trump’s “impulsive reaction” to their client’s actions violates Saipov’s rights to due process and the Federal Death Penalty Act.
Saipov is represented by Jennifer Brown, Annalisa Mirón and David Patton of the Federal Defenders of New York; and David Stern of Rothman, Schneider, Soloway & Stern.
New York is one of 19 states where the death penalty has been abolished at the state level. The last defendant for whom federal prosecutors in New York sought the death penalty was Khalid Barnes, a Westchester County drug kingpin who was convicted of killing two drug dealers and ultimately sentenced to life in prison.
Tritico said that it may be more difficult to find a “death-qualified” jury or jurors who are not opposed to the death penalty outright in New York than, say, his home state of Texas, which currently has 13 federal prisoners on death row, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
“But that doesn’t mean that there is not a sufficient number of people in the state of New York that see death as the right option in a case,” Tritico said. “That’s all you need.”