New York bike path killer avoids death penalty as jury deadlocks

Sayfullo Saipov has received life in prison for a 2017 attack that left eight people dead and others severely injured.

A courtroom illustration with Saypov in the foreground and a jury member, wearing a face mask, passing a document to the court deputy.
A jury member hands the guilty verdict to the court deputy in an illustration of the Sayfullo Saipov trial from January [File: Jane Rosenberg/Reuters]

A split among jurors in the United States has resulted in no death penalty for an Uzbekistan man accused of intentionally racing a truck along a popular New York City bike path, killing eight people and maiming others.

The deadlock means Sayfullo Saipov, a 35-year-old who lived in New Jersey, gets an automatic sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole for the October 2017 attack. A federal jury told the judge on Monday that they were unable to reach the unanimous verdict required for a death sentence.

The sentencing was the culmination of a trial that featured emotional testimony from survivors of the attack and relatives of the five Argentinian tourists, two Americans and a Belgian woman who were killed.

The same jury convicted Saipov in January of 28 charges, including murder in aid of racketeering and supporting a terrorist organization.

It returned last month for a penalty phase to decide whether he should be sentenced to death or spend the rest of his life at a maximum security prison in Florence, Colorado.

Over several days, federal prosecutors argued for the harshest punishment. Some of Saipov’s relatives testified that they still loved him and hoped he would eventually realize the evil of his act.

Saipov’s responsibility for the killings was never in doubt. His lawyers conceded he steered his rental truck on a sunny day onto a crowded lower Manhattan bike path along the Hudson River in a bid for martyrdom.

Prosecutors said he sped up, trying to kill as many people as he could. His plan to drive to the Brooklyn Bridge and kill even more people was thwarted when he crashed into a school bus. He left the wrecked vehicle shouting “God is great” in Arabic, wielding paintball and pellet guns, before being shot by a police officer.

Prosecutors said he smiled as he asked that an ISIL (ISIS) group flag be posted on the wall of his hospital room.

The sentencing hearing was one of the rare federal death penalty cases to take place in New York, a state without capital punishment. US law, however, would still allow an execution by federal authorities for exceptional crimes.

While some US states send prisoners to death row with regularity, New York last executed a prisoner in 1963, and it effectively abolished the death penalty in its state in 2007.

A day after the attack, then-President Donald Trump tweeted that Saipov “SHOULD GET DEATH PENALTY!”

Biden pledged during his campaign to work towards abolishing federal capital punishment, and no federal executions have taken place since he took office.

US Attorney General Merrick Garland imposed a moratorium on executions for federal crimes in 2021 but has allowed US prosecutors to continue advocating for capital punishment in cases inherited from previous administrations.

During his trial, Saipov seemed moved by testimony from his father and sisters. Otherwise, he sat quietly, his shoulders slumped, as he listened through headphones to the testimony of victims, including a woman from Belgium who lost her legs and her husband, who needed brain surgery because of the attack.

A makeshift tribute of flowers honours the dead in a 2017 attack. A woman is sitting close to the site, hugging her dog in her lap and burying her face in its fur.
A New York City resident hugs her dog in the aftermath of the 2017 bike path attack [File: Craig Ruttle/AP Photo]

Saipov turned down the chance to testify at trial. But during his 2019 pretrial hearing, he lectured Judge Vernon S Broderick about the US legal system, insisting that he could not be judged for eight deaths when “thousands and thousands of Muslims are dying all over the world”.

During closing arguments in the penalty phase on Tuesday, lawyers made a final appeal to jurors.

Assistant US Attorney Amanda Houle called for the death penalty for Saipov’s “unremorseful slaughter of innocent civilians”.

Defence lawyer David Patton urged a life sentence, saying his client then will “die in prison in obscurity, not as a martyr, not as a hero to anyone”.

Saipov came to the US legally from Uzbekistan in 2010 and lived in Ohio and Florida before moving to Paterson, New Jersey.

His death penalty trial was the first of its kind in New York City in a decade.

In 2007 and again in 2013, federal juries in Brooklyn sentenced to death a man who killed two New York City police detectives, but both sentences were reversed on appeal before a judge ruled the killer had an intellectual disability.

In 2001, a Manhattan federal jury rejected the death penalty for two men convicted in the deadly bombings of two US embassies in Africa after their lawyers argued against making the defendants into martyrs.

The last time a person was executed for a federal crime in New York was in 1954.

Source: The Associated Press