(NEW YORK) — The first federal death penalty trial of the Biden administration began Monday in New York City with a prosecutor alleging Sayfullo Saipov was on a mission to become a full-fledged member of the ISIS terrorist network when he allegedly killed eight people and injured many others after he plowed a rental truck into people on a pedestrian and bicycling path in lower Manhattan on Halloween 2017.
Assistant U.S. District Attorney Alexander Li promised in his opening statement to show jurors photos of mangled bicycles and bodies, video of the truck racing down Manhattan’s West Side Highway and the 32-year-old defendant running through the street before a police officer shot and wounded him. Li said prosecution witnesses will testify of hearing the “roar of the engine” and the “horrible grinding noise” as Saipov allegedly mowed down bicycles and people.
As the trial began in U.S. District Court in Manhattan, Saipov, who was raised in Uzbekistan, sat at the defense table wearing an olive shirt, a face mask and headphones so he can follow the trial through translation into his native language.
If convicted, he could face a sentence of death by lethal injection, making him the first federal defendant executed in a New York case since Julius and Ethel Rosenberg died in the electric chair in 1953 for espionage.
The Halloween 2017 truck attack was the deadliest terror attack in New York since Sept. 11, 2001.
The truck Saipov rented reached a speed of 66 mph before crashing into a school bus near Stuyvesant High School with two children aboard, one of whom was badly injured, Li said.
“The man who did this was Sayfullo Saipov,” Li told jurors. “Right after the attack, the defendant proudly declared why: He did it for ISIS. The defendant killed to become a member of ISIS and he did it right here in New York.”
Saipov’s attorney, David Patton, conceded in his opening statement that his committed the deadly attack, but disagreed with the motive prosecutors alleged.
“A little over five years ago, Sayfullo Saipov drove a rented truck down the West Side Highway. He killed eight innocent people. It wasn’t an accident. He did it intentionally,” Patton told jurors Monday afternoon.
But Patton claimed Saipov did not commit the attack to become a full-fledged member of ISIS, saying, “He had no real connection to ISIS, the organization, other than begin on the receiving end of the messaging.”
“He did it because he had become immersed in ISIS messaging online,” Patton said. “And he had become convinced it was a religious obligation for him to commit a martyrdom attack to avenge the killings of Muslims around the world. And as we sit here today, he still believes that.”
The defense choice of effectively admitting guilt echoed the strategy of another death penalty defendant charged in a terror attack, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who was convicted of the Boston Marathon bombing. During the 2015 trial, Tsarnaev’s defense attorney, Judy Clark, said in her opening statement that Tsarnaev committed the bombing with his brother, who was killed by police.
A jury convicted Tsarnaev on all counts and he was sentenced to death, a punishment the U.S. Supreme Court upheld earlier this year.
“Mr. Saipov caused unimaginable pain and suffering,” Patton told jurors. “There is no excuse for what he did and we will not offer one.”
The defense attorney told the jury Saipov’s life “changed dramatically” after he left his native Uzbekistan, where he had been surrounded by family, and came to the United States where he became a driver. Patton said Saipov became isolated from community and often alone, and that he was drawn into an “online world of grievance and conspiracy theories.” “And so on October 31, 2017, he rented a truck from Home Depot,” Patton said. “He brought with him a pellet gun and a paintball gun and a number of knives in a bag and a note that said ‘there is no God but God and Muhammed is his messenger.”
Prosecutors said Saipov picked New York City for the attack because he knew it’s a busy, crowded metropolis. Had he not crashed into the school bus, prosecutors alleged Saipov would have extended his path of terror onto the Brooklyn Bridge.
Li alleged Saipov chose Halloween in 2017 as the date for the attack “because he knew there would be lots of people on the streets.”
Saipov — who lived in Florida, Ohio and New Jersey following his arrival in the United States — has pleaded not guilty to charges that include murder in the aid of racketeering.
He was allegedly inspired to commit the killings by ISIS videos he viewed, prosecutors have previously said. The rental truck used in the Oct. 31, 2017, attack was decorated with an ISIS flag.
The suspect allegedly drove the truck on a bike lane and pedestrian walkway in lower Manhattan, near Stuyvesant High School. When the truck collided with the school bus, the driver exited the vehicle holding two objects, a paintball gun and pellet gun, prosecutors said.
“Moments after Saipov got out of the truck, he yelled, in substance and in part, ‘Allah Akbar,'” according to charging documents filed in the case.
Prosecutors alleged Saipov rented the pickup nine days before the attack “so he could practice making turns with the truck in advance of his attack,” prosecutors said.
The attack required “substantial planning and premeditation,” prosecutors said, describing Saipov in court documents as Saipov as “heinous, cruel and depraved.”
Killed in the attack were Diego Enrique Angelini, Nicholas Cleves, Ann-Laure Decadt, Darren Drake, Ariel Erlij, Hernan Ferruchi, Hernan Diego Mendoza, and Alejandro Damian Pagnucco. Five of the victims were tourists from Argentina.
If Saipov is convicted, there would be a penalty phase of the case in which the jury would decide whether he deserves the death penalty or life in prison.
It has been a decade since the Southern District of New York last prosecuted a death penalty case. Its last capital murder case was against Khalid Barnes, who was convicted of murdering two drug suppliers but was ultimately sentenced to life in prison in September 2009.
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