Lawyer to jury: NYC bike path defendant proud of death trail


NEW YORK (AP) — A man who killed eight people on a New York City bike path was proud of…

NEW YORK (AP) — A man who killed eight people on a New York City bike path was proud of the carnage and wanted to hang the flag of an Islamic militant group in his hospital room, a prosecutor said Monday in the first federal death penalty trial to commence since President Joe Biden took office.

On a sunny Halloween day in 2017, Sayfullo Saipov steered a rented pickup truck onto a path that runs along the Hudson River and accelerated to 66 mph (106 kmh), running over cyclists and pedestrians and leaving a trail of dead and injured, authorities say.

The rampage came to an end when the truck crashed into a school bus a few blocks from the World Trade Center. Saipov was shot by a police officer after authorities say he emerged from the wreck with a pellet gun and a paintball gun in his hands. The officer testified they looked like guns that fire bullets.

Saipov, 34, has pleaded not guilty to terrorism charges. But in his opening statement to the jury, defense lawyer David Patton did not deny that his client meant to kill.

“It wasn’t an accident. He did it intentionally,” said the attorney, David Patton. “At the end of the day, there is no making sense of such a senseless act.”

The lawyer, though, said prosecutors were wrong to claim that Saipov did it to win favor with a terrorist group and he said jurors should pay close attention to the evidence to see he was right.

Saipov expected to die that day as a martyr to avenge the deaths of Muslims worldwide, Patton said.

As Saipov fiddled occasionally with an electronic device at the defense table, Assistant U.S. Attorney Alexander Li turned briefly to cast a finger in his direction, saying there was no doubt he was to blame for the deaths of eight people and permanent injuries to about a dozen others.

Li described the attack’s aftermath, in which mangled bicycles were strewn along a popular path while survivors “staggered around, wounded and dazed,” searching for their family and friends. The dead included a mother visiting from Belgium with her family, five friends from Argentina and two Americans.

Li said Saipov had hoped to kill others by driving onto the Brooklyn Bridge, “where he could mow down even more people.” The collision with the school bus left one child with serious brain damage, Li said. Saipov emerged from the truck with his guns, shouting an Arabic phrase, “Allahu akbar!” meaning “God is great!”

Li said Saipov meant the shout to be “celebratory.” After he was shot by the officer, he was arrested at the scene along the West Side Highway.

Li said an FBI agent who Saipov asked to display an “ISIS” flag in his hospital room will be among witnesses.

“He was proud of his attack. He told an FBI agent that his goal was to kill as many people as possible,” the prosecutor said, adding that the agent will testify that Saipov smiled as he recounted his destruction.

Biden instituted a moratorium on executions for federal crimes after becoming president. Until now, his Justice Department, under Attorney General Merrick Garland, has not launched any new attempt to obtain the death penalty in a federal case. But he has allowed U.S. prosecutors to continue advocating for capital punishment in cases inherited from previous administrations.

Judge Vernon S. Broderick told jurors that if they convict Saipov, a separate punishment phase of the trial will occur in which they would be asked to decide whether he should spend life in prison or be executed. Unless they unanimously chose death, the sentence would be life in prison, Broderick said.

Saipov’s lawyers have said the death penalty process was irrevocably tainted by ex-President Donald Trump when he tweeted in all capital letters a day after the attack that Saipov “SHOULD GET DEATH PENALTY!”

In 2001, just weeks before the Sept. 11 attacks, a jury in Manhattan federal court declined to impose death on two men convicted in the deadly bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa.

In 2019, Saipov spoke out during a pretrial hearing, saying “thousands and thousands of Muslims are dying all over the world” and questioning why he should be judged for eight deaths.

In his opening statement, Li said jurors will hear testimony about Saipov’s desire to win the favor of the Islamic State group after he moved to the U.S. legally 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 proof that he viewed and stored thousands of images of Islamic State propaganda, including calls to use cars and trucks as weapons in terrorism attacks in the U.S.

William Harris, the trial’s first witness, said he was driving a vehicle when he saw Saipov waving what looked like two pistols in the air “in a threatening manner.” He said he drove at Saipov, but Saipov was able to get out of the way. Harris said he got out of his car and chased Saipov for about five minutes until Saipov was shot.

Police Detective Ryan Nash, who was a New York police officer at the time, testified that he was responding to another call when he ended up also chasing Saipov on foot.

“I said: ‘Police! Drop the weapons!,’” he recalled. “He did not. He raised them up and aimed them at me. I discharged my firearm.” Nash fired nine shots.

Nash said he believed Saipov’s guns fired bullets. Nash’s gunfire echoed in the courtroom Monday as a video was shown to the jury that showed the moment when Saipov was wounded.

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