WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump on Thursday again urged the death penalty for the assailant in this week’s deadly Manhattan terror rampage and backed away from his initial suggestion that Sayfullo Saipov be sent to Guantánamo Bay.
“Would love to send the NYC terrorist to Guantanamo but statistically that process takes much longer than going through the Federal system,” tweeted Trump, who a day earlier had said: “Send him to Gitmo.”
“There is also something appropriate about keeping him in the home of the horrible crime he committed,” the president continued Thursday. “Should move fast. DEATH PENALTY!”
But legal scholars said such a statement by a president ultimately may undermine his preference for an execution by complicating the job of prosecutors and slowing the judicial process.
Trump spoke as the leader of the executive branch that is prosecuting Saipov, so the “defense counsel may capitalize on the president’s call for the death penalty to argue that the defendant cannot receive a fair trial,” said University of Richmond School of Law professor Carl Tobias.
The president’s tweets demanding capital punishment “will make the prosecutor’s job of securing a fair, unbiased and untainted jury more difficult,” said Ellen Yaroshefsky, professor of legal ethics at the Maurice A. Deane School of Law at Hofstra University.
A prosecutor who voiced the same would be disciplined for acting unethically, she said.
“Trump helped the terrorist with this tweet. Now prosecutors will have to spend time dealing with motions that the jury pool is tainted,” Renato Mariotti, a former federal prosecutor and Illinois attorney general candidate, argued via Twitter.
Trump on Wednesday night also had called for the death penalty, noting in a tweet that Saipov had allegedly asked to display the ISIS flag in his Manhattan hospital room. Authorities said the 29-year-old on Tuesday drove a rented truck into a crowded bike path on the West Side, killing at least eight but also injuring at least a dozen in the deadliest terror attack since Sept. 11, 2001.
Andrew McCarthy, a New York-based former chief assistant U.S. attorney, acknowledged that the American public likely wants execution for Saipov, but that doesn’t mean the president can say so.
“Mr. President, we all know he should get the death penalty. But when *you* say it, it makes it harder for DOJ to make that happen,” McCarthy tweeted.
Trump on Thursday also renewed his call for Congress to end the visa lottery program through which Saipov emigrated seven years ago. He said the two-decade-old diversity initiative “presents significant vulnerabilities to our national security.”
Trump’s attorney general, Jeff Sessions, said a lottery system “makes no sense,” arguing in a speech to federal agents and prosecutors the Manhattan U.S. Attorney’s headquarters that entry into the United States should be merit-based.
“We don’t use random chance in college admissions, and we don’t roll a die to hire people,” Sessions said. “By the same token, a lottery tells us nothing about who might be entering our country.”
With Matthew Chayes