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Death penalty phase of trial looms for New York City bike path killer

NEW YORK (AP) – A jury yesterday began considering whether an extremist who killed eight people on a New York City bike path should get a death sentence, an extraordinarily rare penalty in a state that hasn’t had an execution in 60 years.

Sayfullo Saipov (AP, pic below), 35, was convicted last month in the 2017 attack, in which he intentionally drove a truck at high speed down a path along the Hudson River, mowing down bicyclists on a sunny morning hours before the city’s October celebrations.

The same jury that found Saipov guilty will return to work, hearing from additional witnesses in the trial’s penalty phase. Anything less than a unanimous vote for death will mean Saipov will spend the rest of his life in prison.

Saipov’s lawyers hope to convince jurors that a life term is punishment enough for a spree that killed five friends from Argentina, a woman from Belgium and two Americans.

New York does not have capital punishment and hasn’t executed anyone since 1963, but Saipov’s trial is in federal court, where a death sentence is still an option, though one rarely sought with success. The last time a person was executed for a federal crime in New York was in 1954.

United States (US) President Joe Biden put a moratorium on federal executions after taking office and his Justice Department has not, until now, initiated any new death penalty proceedings.

Saipov’s lawyers argued it is unconstitutional for prosecutors to seek his execution when the government stopped seeking death in so many other cases, including some with defendants who killed more people.

They noted that then-President Donald Trump quickly urged a death sentence, tweeting a day after the attack that Saipov “SHOULD GET DEATH PENALTY!” The lawyers said it was Trump’s way of furthering “his anti-immigrant agenda.” Even in deadlier attacks, including the 2019 El Paso, Texas, shooting attack that killed 23 Walmart customers, death was not sought, the lawyers noted.

The lawyers said it seemed arbitrary for the US Justice Department to “spare some defendants but single out Saipov, an immigrant, for the death penalty even though their culpability is arguably greater.”

Prosecutors are expected to focus on Saipov’s victims. In the first phase of his trial, jurors heard from survivors who described the horror and sorrow at losing loved ones and the pain they continue to suffer from injuries. More of that kind of emotional testimony was expected as prosecutors present their case over the next week.

Saipov, meanwhile, has been unrepentant since he was shot after emerging from his truck and waving pellet and paintball guns at a police officer.

Saipov’s lawyers said even before trial that he would be willing to plead guilty and consent to life in prison if death was not sought.

Any death sentence rendered by the jury would likely by subject to years of appeals.