Thursday, 23 Mar 2023

As U.S. Argued for Death Penalty, Bike Path Victims Gave Voice to Pain

A little girl standing on her toes to place her palm on her deceased father’s image on a television screen. A mother who has left her son’s bedroom exactly as it was on Halloween 2017. A man married to a woman who lost her legs who clutches a pair of her socks in bed every night, yearning for the contact of her feet.

The federal jury deciding on a death penalty for Sayfullo Saipov, the man convicted last month of killing eight people and injuring many others in a truck attack inspired by the Islamic State, has heard from more than 20 witnesses, including victims, relatives and bystanders. On Wednesday, the prosecution rested its case and Mr. Saipov’s lawyers began trying to save his life.

The jury, which has already convicted Mr. Saipov, began the trial’s separate punishment phase on Feb. 13. To make its case, the government has sought to show the severity of the crime’s impact on its victims and those close to them.

Most witnesses who have taken the stand in the United States District Court in Manhattan have described what their lives have been like since the day Mr. Saipov sped down a West Side bike path and killed their loved ones.

Mr. Saipov is the first defendant to face a federal death penalty trial during the administration of President Biden, who campaigned against the practice.

“He is not remorseful, and the evidence shows that he is dangerous even in prison,” said Amanda Houle, a federal prosecutor, during the government’s opening statement. “The United States is seeking the most severe penalty that the law provides: a sentence of death.”

Stories of Grief

Six of the eight people who died were tourists visiting from Argentina and Belgium; the others were Nicholas Cleves, a 23-year-old software engineer from Manhattan, and Darren Drake, a 32-year-old financial worker from New Jersey.

Understand the Bike-Path Terror Trial

A high-profile case. Sayfullo Saipov was found guilty of driving a truck onto a Manhattan bike path and killing eight people on Halloween Day in 2017 — an attack that was the deadliest terrorist attack in New York City since Sept. 11 according to the authorities. Here is what to know:

How did the attack unfold? Prosecutors say that Mr. Saipov plowed a rented pickup truck down a bike path along the Hudson River, killing eight and injuring 11. The rampage ended when he smashed into a school bus, jumped out of the truck and ran down the highway shouting “God is great” in Arabic. A police officer shot him in the abdomen, bringing him down.

Who were the victims? Of the eight fatalities, six were tourists, five from Argentina and one from Belgium. The other victims were a 23-year-old computer scientist from Manhattan and a 32-year-old financial worker from New Jersey.

What do we know about Mr. Saipov? Mr. Saipov is an Uzbek immigrant; he left his home country in 2010 after winning the U.S. visa lottery. He told the authorities after he was arrested that he was inspired to carry out the attack by Islamic State videos and that he had used a truck as a weapon in order to inflict maximum damage against civilians.

What was Mr. Saipov charged with? Mr. Saipov faced charges that include murder, attempted murder, providing material support to a foreign terrorist organization and violence and destruction of a motor vehicle. He was convicted of all counts on Jan. 26; a jury will now decide whether he should be executed or receive life imprisonment, for which a unanimous vote is required.

Why is the outcome of the trial significant? Mr. Saipov, who was charged during the Trump administration and pleaded not guilty, is the first person to face a death penalty trial during the administration of President Biden, who had campaigned against capital punishment. Mr. Saipov’s lawyers asked the Justice Department to reconsider, but Attorney General Merrick B. Garland denied their request.

On Tuesday, Kristen Wilkens, the first cousin of Mr. Drake, said she had lost a treasured confidant.

“He was my safe place and a place to keep secrets,” she said. “Every day that I go anywhere, there’s reminders of him and how the world just changed that day.”

Ana Evans, the widow of Hernan Mendoza, described to the jury through an interpreter the moment they met — and the difficulty of telling their three children that their father had died.

“Daddy. That’s daddy. I’m missing him,” Ms. Evans recalled her 3-year-old daughter saying as she saw her father’s image on the television screen.

Monica Missio, the mother of Mr. Cleves, described the difficulty she’s had reading his journals, many of which start with “I’m grateful to be alive.”

She said her son’s Halloween costume was still folded in his bedroom, as he had left it.

Aristide Melissas and his wife, Marion Van Reeth, two Belgians who survived the attack, sold their home because Ms. Van Reeth could not navigate it with her wheelchair. Mr. Melissas described his more than 20 months in rehabilitation, and how he still can’t work full time.

“I thought of ending my life,” Mr. Melissas testified. “Every time I go in bed, I’m seeking for the feet of my wife,” he said, adding that he holds the socks she wore the night before the attack, “the last night she still had her feet.”

Maria Alejandra Sosa, the widow of Alejandro Pagnucco, described how each night she and her two daughters kiss the urn containing his ashes.

A ‘Dangerous’ Prisoner

Two guards from the Federal Bureau of Prisons described Mr. Saipov’s behavior behind bars in New York.

“He is still threatening to eliminate people in prison, threatening to slit the throats of correction officers,” Ms. Houle said during her opening statement.

Rosa Proto, a former officer at the Metropolitan Correctional Center, a now-closed lockup in Manhattan, told jurors how Mr. Saipov in 2019 had covered a surveillance camera in his cell.

Ms. Proto recalled Mr. Saipov saying he wouldn’t uncover it because an officer on the night shift had been “an animal.” She said Mr. Saipov said he wouldn’t uncover the camera “until his head is chopped off.”

Another officer, Josephine Dones, described how Mr. Saipov had once pressed an alert button inside his cell inside Brooklyn’s Metropolitan Detention Center around 3 a.m.

He was upset by the behavior of a guard and he threatened officers, saying: “I’m going to cut off heads,” Ms. Dones recalled. He kicked and punched the door, and cracked the cell window.

“If this man could crack the window, I don’t know what else he could do,” she said.

The Man From ADX

On Wednesday, defense attorneys called on Chris Synsvoll, an attorney for the Bureau of Prisons, who described the Florence, Colo., prison complex where Mr. Saipov could live out his life — locked in a small cell for 23 hours a day with a concrete bed, a concrete desk, a concrete stool and a sliver of a window.

As a new arrival, Mr. Saipov would get two monitored 15-minute calls a month, three showers a week and no interaction with other inmates. Meals would be served through a sliding cell-door panel. Only after a year of good behavior could he receive additional privileges, Mr. Synsvoll testified, which could include extra phone calls and showers.

ADX Florence is the country’s highest-security prison and is considered the toughest. Zacarias Moussaoui, the 9/11 conspirator, is held there along with Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, the 1993 World Trade Center bombing mastermind.

What’s Next?

Mr. Saipov’s relatives were present in the courtroom Wednesday, though they were not slated to testify until Thursday. The group of at least five, including Mr. Saipov’s father, sat quietly during the testimony, listening through an interpreter.

They sat separately from the victims’ families, who did not interact with them. Mr. Saipov at one point turned his head to look in their direction.

In addition, an expert on Islamic State propaganda will describe why Mr. Saipov, who traveled to the U.S. alone, fit the profile of a person who could be influenced by its message.

The parties have told the judge that the case could run into March. The government will then have the opportunity to make a rebuttal.

“In the end of this case you will be asked to make that momentous, unique, individual, moral choice the judge has described to you,” David Stern, a lawyer for Mr. Saipov, said during his opening statement. He said the jury would not be like Mr. Saipov: “We will show a civilized sense of justice.”

Brittany Kriegsteincontributed reporting.

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