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NEW YORK — Lawyers for a man convicted of killing eight people along a Manhattan bike path say prosecutors are seeking “an eye for an eye” justice, using tearful testimonies from victims and their families to convict a jury persuade to order death.
They asked the judge presiding over the death penalty phase of Sayfullo Saipov’s trial to declare a mistrial on the matter.
“The evidence of the government’s impact on victims was replete with emotional testimony, improper references to and characterizations of Mr. Saipov and his crime, and appealed to the jury’s emotions and compassion for the victims and their plight,” the attorneys wrote.
The motion came late last week as lawyers prepared to present evidence to support their anti-death penalty arguments as soon as Tuesday, when the trial resumes and prosecutors complete their presentation. If a jury votes against death, Saipov will serve a life sentence.
Saipov, 35, was found guilty last month of killing eight people and seriously injuring about 18 others on Oct. 31, 2017, when he crashed his rented truck into a bike lane in Lower Manhattan along the West Side Highway. Arrested at the scene, he said he supported the Islamic State group.
The same jurors who heard scores of victims and family members of the dead tearfully testify before convicting Saipov have watched many others over the past week describe how their lives were profoundly changed by the terrorist attack. Some witnesses testified twice.
There was no testimony Friday as defense attorneys filed their request for a trial, calling the emotional testimony a day earlier “the most haunting and powerful yet.”
They also made the unusual motion to ask the judge to order that audio recordings of the court proceedings be used solely by court stenographers to ensure the transcripts are accurate and preserved, presumably so an appellate court can hear the extent of the emotional witness testimony.
In their filing, defense attorneys cited some testimonies from Thursday, including Belgian witness Alexander Naessens, whose wife Ann-Laure Decadt was killed.
He said his children “will never have their mother, never the most important person in their life, ever.”
“And as for me, you know, my life is ruined,” Naessens said.
Defense attorneys wrote that the testimony “went beyond a mere description of pain and loss and almost urged the jury to end Mr. Saipov’s life for ending Ms. Decadt’s life and ‘ruining’ the lives of her husband and children.”
Defense attorneys also complained that prosecutors followed Naessens’ testimony by playing recorded prison conversations between Saipov and his children, in what they described as an apparent attempt to invite the jury “to approach Mr. Saipov for the benefit of the children of.” to avenge Mrs. Decadt. ”
“This is nothing more than an appeal for an “eye-for-an-eye” justice that encourages the jury to ignore or disregard any mitigation and is otherwise inconsistent with the jury’s job: to soberly weigh the evidence to determine whether Mr. Saipov deserved the ultimate punishment,” they added.
Defense attorneys also said a court case may be necessary over the emotional testimony of Lieve Wyseur, Ann-Laure Decadt’s mother.
“Having cried and sobbed, sometimes in visible fits of anger, during most of her statements, Ms. Wyseur’s presentation was a fundamental appeal to passion and emotion,” they wrote.
“Of course, the defense is not criticizing the witnesses for the grief and pain they feel at the loss of Ms. Decadt,” they added. “What is indisputable, however, is that the punitive phase of federal capital proceedings is not the forum for victims to freely express their feelings or, in the case of Ms. Wyseur, vent their (understandable) anger and anguish.”
A spokesman for the prosecutor’s office declined to comment.
During the sentencing phase of the trial, Judge Vernon S. Broderick repeatedly asked witnesses to request a break if they believed they were becoming overly emotional, and he made decisions to withhold some audio or video recordings that he felt he was being overwhelmed by could be unduly disadvantageous.
During the presentation of the defense case, members of Saipov’s family were expected in a courtroom often filled with victims and family members of the dead.
New York does not have the death penalty and has not executed anyone since 1963, but Saipov’s trial is in federal court, where a death sentence is still an option. 1954 was the last time a person was executed for a federal crime in New York.