NEW YORK (AP) — A man who killed eight people on a bike lane in New York City in 2017 smiled as he spoke proudly of the carnage and asked to hang a militant Islamic group’s flag in his hospital room, a prosecutor said on Wednesday Monday in the first federal anti-death penalty trial since President Joe Biden took office.
On a sunny Halloween day, Sayfullo Saipov steered a rented pickup truck down a concrete path along the Hudson River and accelerated to 66 mph (106 km/h), hitting cyclists and pedestrians and leaving a trail of dead and injured.
The rampage ended when the truck collided with a school bus a few blocks from the World Trade Center. Saipov was shot dead by a police officer who says Saipov emerged from the wreckage and pointed black pellet and paintball guns at him that looked like lethal weapons.
After being shot by the officer, Saipov was arrested at the scene on the West Side Highway.
Saipov, 34, has pleaded not guilty to the terrorism charge. But in his opening statement to the jury, defense attorney David Patton said his client intended to kill.
“It wasn’t an accident. He did it on purpose,” Patton said, explaining that Saipov has delved into terrorist audio, video and social media and is convinced that an act of terrorism is his religious obligation.
“And as we sit here today, he still thinks so,” Patton said. “Among other things, he murdered eight people.”
However, the lawyer said prosecutors were wrong when they claimed Saipov acted to earn his place in a terrorist group and the jury should follow the evidence to see prosecutors wrong.
Saipov expected to die as a martyr that day to avenge the deaths of Muslims worldwide, Patton said.
While Saipov fiddled with an electronic device at the defense table, Assistant US Attorney Alexander described the gruesome scene Saipov left in his wake, including the deaths and serious permanent injuries of about a dozen others.
Li described the aftermath of the attack, which saw shredded bicycles scattered along a popular path.
“The riders, humans, lay unconscious or dead. Wounded and dazed, survivors staggered around looking for their families and friends. Screams filled the air,” he said. The dead included a mother visiting with her family from Belgium, five friends from Argentina and two Americans.
Li said Saipov was hoping to kill others by driving onto the Brooklyn Bridge “where he could mow down more people.” The collision with the school bus left a child with severe brain damage. Saipov got out of his truck with his guns and shouted an Arabic phrase: “Allahu akbar”, which means “God is great”.
Saipov opined the call was “solemn,” Li said.
An FBI agent whom Saipov asked to display an “ISIS” flag in his hospital room will be among the witnesses, Li said.
“He really wanted to talk to the FBI. He was proud of his attack,” the prosecutor said, adding that the agent will testify that Saipov smiled when recounting his destruction. “He told them his goal was to kill as many people as possible.”
Biden imposed a moratorium on executions for federal crimes after taking office. So far, his Justice Department, under Attorney General Merrick Garland, has made no new attempt to obtain the death penalty in a federal proceeding. But he has allowed US prosecutors to continue to champion the death penalty in cases inherited from previous administrations.
Judge Vernon S. Broderick told the jury that convicting Saipov would result in a separate punishment phase where they would be asked to decide whether he should serve life in prison or be executed. If they do not unanimously choose death, the penalty would be life in prison.
Saipov’s lawyers said the death penalty process was irrevocably spoiled by ex-President Donald Trump when he tweeted in capital letters a day after the attack that Saipov “SHOULD HAVE THE DEATH PENALTY!”
In 2001, just weeks before the 9/11 attacks, a jury in Manhattan federal court declined to sentence to death two men convicted of the deadly bombings of two US embassies in Africa.
Speaking during a pretrial hearing in 2019, Saipov said “thousands and thousands of Muslims are dying around the world” and questioned why he should be convicted of eight deaths.
In his opening statement on Monday, Li said the jury will hear testimony about Saipov’s desire to win favor with the Islamic State group after he legally moved to the United States from Uzbekistan in 2010. He lived in Ohio and Florida before joining his family in Paterson, New Jersey.
The prosecutor said Saipov’s cellphones contained evidence that he had viewed and stored thousands of images of Islamic State propaganda, including calls for cars and trucks to be used as weapons in terrorist attacks in the US
William Harris, the first witness at the trial, said he was driving a vehicle when he saw Saipov “threateningly” waving two pistols in the air. He said he drove towards Saipov, but Saipov avoided him. Harris said he followed Saipov on foot for five minutes until Saipov was shot.
Police detective Ryan Nash, then a New York City police officer, testified that he was responding to another call when he, too, was chasing Saipov on foot.
“I said, ‘Police! Drop the guns!” he recalled. “He didn’t. He picked her up and pointed her at me. I fired my gun.” Nash fired nine shots.
Nash’s shots echoed in the courtroom Monday as the jury was shown video that captured the moment Saipov was wounded.
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