NYC truck terror attacker fights to avoid death penalty over ethnic discrimination claims

Sayfullo Saipov's death penalty phase trial begins next week.

February 9, 2023, 3:27 PM

Four days before the penalty phase is scheduled to begin, attorneys for Sayfullo Saipov sought on Thursday to strike the government's decision to seek the death penalty, in part because of what the defense said was possible ethnic or religious discrimination.

Saipov was convicted of carrying out the deadliest terror attack in New York City since Sept. 11 when he drove a truck down a bicycle and pedestrian path along the Hudson River in October 2017, killing eight people.

The defense motion questioned why the government was pursuing the death penalty when the Biden administration has imposed a moratorium on federal executions and declined to authorize the death penalty in deadlier attacks, notably the hate crime at an El Paso, Texas, Walmart that killed 23 people in 2019.

"And given the recent decision to accept Patrick Crusius's guilty plea to life imprisonment despite his unrepentant and premeditated hate killing of 23 Latinos at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas -- Crusius being a white, U.S.-born citizen -- the Court should have significant concern that a driving force behind the death notice in this case is Mr. Saipov's religion and national origin, in violation of the Fifth and Eighth Amendments," defense attorney David Patton said.

Saipov is willing to plead guilty, waive all appeals and consent to lifetime imprisonment under strict conditions that will all but eliminate his third-party communications for the foreseeable future, Patton said.

A law enforcement officer walks by a crime scene Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2017, the day after a driver mowed down people on a riverfront bike path near the World Trade Center in New York.
Mark Lennihan/AP, FILE

There was no immediate response from the government, which has previously defended its discretion to pursue capital punishment. The penalty phase of Saipov's case is scheduled to begin Monday.

If the judge is unwilling to strike the death penalty, the defense said he should at least order federal prosecutors to reveal evidence behind the decision.

The Trump administration authorized the death penalty for Saipov and the Biden administration reauthorized it.

The defense pointed out then-President Donald Trump's public calls for Saipov's execution and his use of the truck attack to rail against so-called "chain migration" and the diversity visa lottery system.

"[I]n the days and weeks immediately following the truck attack, then-President Trump persistently demanded that Mr. Saipov face the death penalty based on nothing more than an intemperate assessment of his crime and his identity as an Uzbek Muslim immigrant who was a diversity visa lottery winner -- an aspect of United States immigration policy that was long the focus of the Trump Administration's ire," the defense said.