NEW YORK (AP) — A man who killed eight people on a New York City bike path in 2017 smiled as he proudly spoke of the carnage, asking 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, Sayfullo Saipov steered a rented pickup truck onto a concrete trail along the Hudson River and accelerated to 66 mph (106 kmh), running over cyclists and pedestrians and leaving a trail of dead and injured.
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 who says Saipov emerged from the wreck and pointed black pellet and paintball guns that looked like deadly weapons at him.
After he was shot by the officer, Saipov was arrested at the scene along the West Side Highway.
Saipov, 34, has pleaded not guilty to terrorism charges. But in his opening statement to the jury, defense lawyer David Patton said his client meant to kill.
“It wasn’t an accident. He did it intentionally,” Patton said, explaining that Saipov had immersed himself in terrorist audio and video materials and social media and was convinced a terror act was his religious obligation.
“And as we sit here today, he still believes that,” Patton said. “Among other crimes, he murdered eight people.”
The lawyer, though, said prosecutors were wrong to claim Saipov acted to earn admittance to a terrorist group and jurors should follow the evidence to see prosecutors are wrong.
Saipov expected to die that day as a martyr to avenge the deaths of Muslims worldwide, Patton said.
As Saipov fiddled with an electronic device at the defense table, Assistant U.S. Attorney Alexander described the gruesome scene Saipov left behind, including the dead and serious permanent injuries to about a dozen others.
Li described the attack’s aftermath, in which mangled bicycles were strewn along a popular path.
“The riders, human beings, lay unconscious or dead. Survivors staggered around, wounded and dazed, searching for their family and friends. Screams filled the air,” he said. 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. Saipov exited his truck with his guns, shouting an Arabic phrase, “Allahu akbar,” meaning “God is great.”
Saipov meant the shout to be “celebratory,” Li said.
An FBI agent who Saipov asked to display an “ISIS” flag in his hospital room will be among witnesses, Li said.
“He was eager to speak with the FBI. He was proud of his attack,” the prosecutor said, adding that the agent will testify that Saipov smiled while recounting his destruction. “He told them that his goal was to kill as many people as possible.”
Biden instituted a moratorium on executions for federal crimes after taking office. 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 a conviction of Saipov would lead to a separate punishment phase in which they would be asked to decide whether he should spend life in prison or be executed. Unless they unanimously choose death, the sentence would be life in prison.
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.
Saipov spoke out during a pretrial hearing in 2019, 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 Monday, Li said jurors will hear testimony about Saipov’s desire to win the favor of the Islamic State group after he legally moved to the U.S. 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 dodged him. Harris said he chased Saipov on foot for five minutes until Saipov was shot.
Police Detective Ryan Nash, then a New York police officer, testified he was responding to another call when he too chased 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’s gunfire echoed in the courtroom Monday as a video was shown to the jury that captured the moment when Saipov was wounded.