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Immigrant convicted in truck attack on bike path that killed 8

Jan. 26, 2023 Updated Thu., Jan. 26, 2023 at 9:02 p.m.

FILE -- People line up to enter Federal District court on the first day of the trial of Sayfullo Saipov, charged with driving onto a lower Manhattan bike path in 2017 and killing eight people on and wounding more than a dozen others, in Manhattan on Jan. 9, 2023. The panel weighing the fate of Sayfullo Saipov, who could face the death penalty, has sent a stream of questions to the federal judge overseeing the case. (Jefferson Siegel/The New York Times)  (JEFFERSON SIEGEL)
FILE -- People line up to enter Federal District court on the first day of the trial of Sayfullo Saipov, charged with driving onto a lower Manhattan bike path in 2017 and killing eight people on and wounding more than a dozen others, in Manhattan on Jan. 9, 2023. The panel weighing the fate of Sayfullo Saipov, who could face the death penalty, has sent a stream of questions to the federal judge overseeing the case. (Jefferson Siegel/The New York Times) (JEFFERSON SIEGEL)
By Benjamin Weiser and Lola Fadulu New York Times

NEW YORK – A man who raced a truck down a Hudson River bike path in 2017, killing eight people in what authorities have called the deadliest terrorist attack in New York City since 9/11, was convicted of murder charges Thursday by a federal jury and could now face the death penalty.

The man, Sayfullo Saipov, a 34-year-old Uzbek native, said after his arrest that he was inspired to carry out the attack by Islamic State videos that he watched on his phone and that he chose a truck to inflict maximum damage against civilians. Saipov is the first defendant to face a federal death penalty trial during the administration of President Joe Biden, who had campaigned against capital punishment.

The Manhattan jury delivered its verdict during its first full day of deliberations, after hearing wrenching testimony from survivors and relatives of people killed in the attack. The truck had plowed into bicyclists, sending riders flying into the air, crushing others on the ground and leaving broken truck parts, mangled bicycles and bodies scattered behind.

The eight fatalities included six tourists, one from Belgium and five from Argentina. The other victims were a 23-year-old software engineer from Manhattan and a 32-year-old financial worker from New Jersey.

Having convicted Saipov, the jury will now be asked to decide whether he should be imprisoned for life or face the death penalty, which would require a unanimous vote of the 12 jurors.

The government’s decision to seek capital punishment against Saipov was originally made during the administration of President Donald Trump.

Later, the attorney general at the time directed federal prosecutors to seek Saipov’s execution if he was convicted.

Last year, Saipov’s lawyers asked the Justice Department under Biden to withdraw the death penalty request. But in September, writing to the judge, Vernon S. Broderick, prosecutors said Attorney General Merrick Garland had decided that the government would continue to pursue capital punishment.

The government had argued that Saipov carried out the truck attack in order to become a member of the Islamic State group, a terrorist organization that once held authority over large areas in Iraq and Syria and had pledged to create a new Muslim caliphate.

“He turned a bike path into his battlefield,” Jason A. Richman, a federal prosecutor, said during his closing argument Tuesday. “He was happy about the terrorist attack he unleashed.”

Richman noted that Saipov had asked to hang an Islamic State flag in his hospital room at Bellevue Hospital Center, where he was interviewed by the FBI after being shot in the abdomen by a New York police officer, ending his rampage.

“He told the FBI: ‘I committed this attack to do my part, my part for Allah, my part for my version of Islam, and my part for the caliphate, my part for ISIS,’” Richman said, using an alternative name for the Islamic State group.

The government has said that a cellphone found in Saipov’s truck contained roughly 90 videos, many Islamic State group-related, depicting, for example, the shooting or beheading of prisoners and instructions for making an improvised explosive device. The phone also contained about 3,800 images, including many of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, then the group’s leader.

Saipov’s lead lawyer did not deny that his client had intentionally driven the truck that caused the deaths and injuries. “His actions were senseless, horrific, and there’s no justification for them,” David E. Patton, the city’s federal public defender, said in his summation.

“Nobody forced him to do this, and he’s guilty of murder and assault among many other crimes – plain and simple,” Patton said.

But Patton disputed the government’s claim that Saipov carried out the attack in order to become an Islamic State member – which Patton indicated was a critical distinction. Some of the charges say Saipov committed the murders “for the purpose of gaining entrance to ISIS.”

Patton argued that his client had merely been “steeped in ISIS propaganda,” which encouraged followers to carry out martyrdom attacks around the world.

“He bought into all these notions of the caliphate and that it was a religious obligation for him to become a martyr and ascend to paradise,” Patton said.

Patton appeared to be setting the stage for arguments during the death penalty phase of the trial that his client, in orchestrating the attack, was not trying to become an Islamic State member but rather had been manipulated by the group’s propaganda.

The trial, coming more than five years after the attack, had been long delayed, largely because of the pandemic. Saipov did not testify. But the words of the victims and witnesses, often delivered through interpreters, were riveting as they recalled that sunny afternoon on the tree-lined path.

The first fatality was Ann-Laure Decadt, 31, the Belgian tourist, who had come to New York with her mother and two sisters.

One sister, Friedel, took the witness stand, carrying a bottle of water in one hand and a package of tissues in the other. Saipov, sitting at the defense table in a mask, stared at her.

As she began to describe their visit to the city, she wiped tears from her face and occasionally looked up at the ceiling. Saipov looked down into his lap.

Friedel said the family had visited Fifth Avenue, Central Park and Wall Street, had taken the ferry to Staten Island and had gone to the Sept. 11 memorial in lower Manhattan.

On Oct. 31, they were pedaling side by side on the bike path, she testified, when she heard a loud rattling noise – the sound of a rapidly approaching vehicle.

As she tried to turn to look, the truck must have passed her, she said, adding, “As of that point, I have only flashes of memory of what I saw.”

She said she remembered seeing Decadt lying on the ground ahead of her. Her first thought was that the truck “might have driven over her head,” she testified. “I went over to my sister, and I just started screaming.”

Decadt had a lifeless gaze, staring into the air with blood gushing from her mouth, she recalled.

Another sister, Justine, and their mother, Lieve, said that the trip was to be a celebration of the sisters’ birthdays and Lieve’s recovery from two bouts of breast cancer.

“It was supposed to be a fun trip, a girls trip,” Justine said.

The jury heard from another Belgian family that was on the bike path that day.

Aristide Melissas, his wife, Marion Van Reeth, their son Daryl and their nephew Timothy Buytaert had stopped at a traffic light near Pier 40 to take a photograph.

The light turned green. “I remember perfectly well what I said to the boys,” Melissas testified. “I said the last who reaches the One World tower, we will offer the ice cream.”

He heard “slippery tires” and a sound like “metal crushing” behind him as he was thrown into the air, he said.

Van Reeth testified that she woke up in a hospital, where she learned that she had suffered a spinal cord injury, broken ribs and head wounds and had to have both legs amputated.

The five Argentine victims of the attack had been part of a group of 10 friends from high school who had come to New York to celebrate the three decades since they had graduated.

One, Juan Pablo Trevisan, testified that the group was biking in pairs, one couple behind the next. They were heading south to visit the Sept. 11 memorial and then planned to bike across the Brooklyn Bridge.

Trevisan recalled that he was talking with the bicyclist to his immediate left, Hernan Ferruchi, when he heard a strange sound, which he tried to imitate for the jury – “too-toom, too-toom, something like that,” Trevisan said.

“It sounded like a very loud engine,” Trevisan testified. “It was as if a train were passing by.”

Trevisan said he asked Ferruchi, on the left, if he had heard the sound. “He made a gesture as if he didn’t know,” Trevisan testified.

It was then that the truck plowed through the group, striking and killing every rider on the left side of the column.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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