Authorities said that on Halloween 2017, Saifullo Saipov plowed a rented pickup truck onto Manhattan’s congested West Side bicycle path, mowing down pedestrians and cyclists, killing eight and More than a dozen were injured, officials said.
Shortly after Mr. Saipov was charged, President Donald J. Trump tweeted, “The death penalty deserves it!” And his attorney general later instructed prosecutors to seek Mr. Saipov’s execution if convicted.
Last year, Mr. Saipov’s lawyers asked President Biden’s Justice Department to withdraw that order. Mr. Biden had, after all, campaigned against the death penalty. But his Attorney General, Merrick B. Garland denied the request, and on Monday, Mr Saipov’s trial is set to begin in federal district court in Manhattan – the first federal death penalty trial under the Biden administration.
Mr. Garland’s decision to continue the death penalty for Mr. Saipov, an Uzbek immigrant, suggests a nuanced approach, in that he has been reluctant to withdraw the threat of the death penalty in one type of case in particular: terrorism-related. crime .
His decision has sparked debate among some legal scholars and capital punishment activists. Some argue that he should follow the anti-death penalty stance Mr. Biden took in his campaign, while others note that the president has never announced a formal policy on the death penalty.
Since taking office nearly two years ago, Garland has not called for the death penalty in any new cases and has actually announced a nationwide moratorium on federal executions. The Justice Department has also rolled back directives issued by previous administrations seeking the death penalty against 25 federal defendants, according to court records and department statistics.
At the same time, the department charged Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the Boston Marathon bomber during President Barack Obama’s administration, and Dylan S. Roof has defended the death penalty on appeal.
“The way the Biden administration is thinking about and moving forward with the federal death penalty, it’s very difficult to understand,” said Austin Sharatt, professor of law and political science at Amherst College.
“Biden’s stance against the death penalty on the campaign trail was, I think, an important signal to many people about what this administration can do,” Mr. Surratt said. “A moratorium on federal executions? That is welcome. But there is no indication of anything beyond that.
From 2007 to 2009, President George W. Under Bush, Attorney General Michael B. Mukase said he was unsure what standard Garland was using in federal death penalty cases, but believed he had a standard.
“Clearly, he is following the laws that Congress has passed by at least recognizing that the death penalty should be sought in some cases, regardless of President Biden’s contrary views,” Mr. Mukase said. “I think it’s a principled decision, and very much the right thing to do.”
Federal death penalty trials have been relatively rare, especially in Manhattan. The last executions in Manhattan federal death penalty cases occurred in the 1950s, most notably Julius and Ethel Rosenberg for espionage. More recently, federal executions were halted for nearly two decades, until the Trump administration put 13 people on death row in the final six months of his term. There are currently 44 federal death row inmates. capital punishment information center,
A spokeswoman for the Justice Department said that as a matter of policy it does not offer public reasons for its decision to withdraw death penalty directives. Nicholas Biese, a spokesman for the US attorney’s office in Manhattan, and David E. Patton, Mr. Saipov’s attorney, declined to comment on the case.
But some lawyers said a pattern has emerged: Of the 25 defendants for whom the Justice Department has withdrawn requests for the death penalty, none were charged with a terrorism-related crime.
“Early on, it became clear that this kind of carving around terrorism was going to happen, despite statements made by both the president and the attorney general,” said Anthony L. said Rico, a veteran New York death penalty defense attorney.
“The only question in our mind was whether or not some of these people were going to include domestic terrorism,” Mr. Ricco said.
Federal prosecutors seeking the death penalty for Mr. Saipov described what they called his planning, premeditation and lack of remorse. He said the attack was aimed at “advancing the ideological goals” of Islamic State, a terrorist organisation, and Mr Saipov targeted the bike path on Halloween to “maximise the devastation to civilians”.
The high number of murders alleged against Mr. Saipov does not appear to have been significant to Mr. Garland’s decision to seek the death penalty. In November, the Justice Department withdrew the death penalty request made in St. Louis against Anthony Jordan, an alleged gang enforcer known as “The Godfather” who was facing trial in a drug conspiracy case. Was accused of involvement in 11 murders.
Critics say Mr. Garland’s decision was inconsistent with Mr. Biden’s position, even though Mr. Saipov has been charged with terrorism.
“What the administration is doing is thinking, we can open the door for this one case,” said Mark Osler, a professor at the University of St. Thomas School of Law in Minneapolis. “History tells us that a door that is broken open with time.”
Mr. Saipov’s trial, in which jury selection has lasted nearly three months, will first focus on the question of whether he is guilty; And if he is convicted, that same 12-member jury will decide whether he should be executed — usually by lethal injection in the federal system — or receive a life sentence. A unanimous vote is needed to impose the death penalty. The process could last until March, attorneys told Judge Vernon S. Broderick.
Jurors are likely to be presented with graphic evidence and testimony about the attack, which Mr Saipov said was inspired by ISIS videos he watched on his phone. The attack ended after the truck rammed a school bus while shouting “Allahu Akbar,” Arabic for “God is great,” jumped out and brandished pellet and paintball guns, according to a federal complaint. Mr Saipov was arrested after a police officer shot him in the stomach.
Of the eight deaths, six were tourists, five from Argentina and one from Belgium. The other victims were a 24-year-old computer scientist from Manhattan and a 32-year-old financial worker from New Jersey.
Officials said it was the deadliest terrorist attack in New York City since September 11, 2001.
In January 2018, even before Mr. Saipov’s decision seeking the death penalty was announced, his attorney, Mr. Patton, the city’s federal public defender, said in a court filing that his client would be guilty and face a life sentence. Will accept If prosecutors removed the death penalty from consideration. The offer was not accepted.
After Mr. Biden took office, Mr. Patton made it clear in court that the proposal still stood. But on September 16, prosecutors wrote to Judge Broderick that “the Attorney General has decided to continue seeking the death penalty.”
Mr Garland, asked about confirmation of a death penalty hearing in February 2021, said his views had evolved.
As a Justice Department attorney, he led the investigation into the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, which killed 168 people and injured hundreds more. One of the convicted attackers, Timothy McVeigh, was executed by lethal injection in 2001.
“I supported the death penalty at that time for Mr. McVeigh in that individual case,” Mr. Garland testified. “I have no regrets.” But he said he had “developed a concern about capital punishment in the 20-something years since then.”
He said the source of his concern is “such arbitrariness and randomness of its application because it is rarely enforced and because of its disproportionate impact on Black Americans and members of other communities of color.” He also cited the large number of DNA exonerations in capital punishment and other cases.
He also acknowledged Mr Biden’s opposition to the death penalty, as well as the president’s power to impose a “complete moratorium”.
“The Supreme Court has held that the death penalty is constitutional, but it is not required,” Mr. Garland said. “And it’s within the discretion of the president.”
Mr. Garland testified that the president had the authority to make policy decisions that could widely affect the department, and that he was not speaking to the president about how any particular matter should proceed. Mr. Garland subsequently established rules strictly limiting contacts between the White House and his department, although the guidelines allow communication related to policy issues.
In July 2021, Mr. Garland ordered a nationwide halt to all federal executions, pending a review of the department’s policies and procedures.
At the time, a White House spokesman, Andrew Bates, said Mr. Biden approved of the decision.
“As the President has made clear, he has significant concerns about the death penalty and how it is implemented, and believes the Justice Department should return to its prior practice of not carrying out executions.” ,” said Mr. Bates.
The White House did not respond to a request for comment on Mr. Saipov’s lawsuit.
Despite the president’s opposition to the death penalty and Mr. Garland’s support for his moratorium, Mr. Biden has not instructed the attorney general to deny the death penalty in all cases, said Rachel E. Barko, a law professor at New York University who He is a master of sentencing.
Regarding Mr. Biden, she said, “I’m not sure he feels comfortable unilaterally pulling it back on every single case.”
She said it didn’t seem fair to criticize Mr. Garland for leaving the death penalty “on the table,” as she said, “because I don’t think President Biden has made it clear that it’s off the table.”
Susan C. beach And Kirsten Noyce Contributed to research.
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