The government can pursue the death penalty against alleged West Side bikepath killer Sayfullo Saipov despite prejudicial comments from President Donald Trump describing him as a “degenerate animal” and calling for his execution, a Manhattan federal judge ruled Thursday.
Defense lawyers claimed that Trump’s early and insistent calls for the death penalty prevented the Justice Department from making an independent judgment required by law on Saipov, accused of mowing down eight pedestrians with a truck in an ISIS-inspired terror attack in October, 2017.
But U.S. District Judge Vincent Broderick said there was no evidence that Trump’s tweets — though “inflammatory” and “perhaps ill-advised given the pendency of this case” — overrode the decisionmaking of then Attorney Gen. Jeff Sessions and Justice Department officials.
“This assertion is pure speculation made without a scintilla of direct factual support,” Broderick wrote in his 12-page decision.
Saipov, 31, of Paterson, New Jersey, a lawful permanent resident who came to the United States from Uzbekistan in 2010, allegedly used a rented van in the Halloween attack, wounded more than a dozen in addition to the fatalities, and told agents afterward he was inspired by ISIS.
In tweets immediately after the attack, Trump wrote, “NYC terrorist was happy as he asked to hang ISIS flag in his hospital room. He killed 8 people, badly injured 12. SHOULD GET DEATH PENALTY!” and “Should move fast. DEATH PENALTY!”
In September, the Justice Department, which has a complicated internal review process in capital case, announced it would seek the death penalty. Saipov’s trial is scheduled for October, but defense lawyers' request for a six-month delay is pending.
Saipov’s lawyers said Trump’s “uninformed and intemperate directive to execute Mr. Saipov” improperly intruded on a decision vested by law in the Justice Department, and Trump’s frequent criticism of Sessions during his presidency had undermined the attorney general’s independence.
In his ruling, Broderick pointed out that in a similar scenario over two decades ago, the courts declined to intervene in the decision to seek the death penalty against Oklahoma City federal building bomber Timothy McVeigh despite the fact that President Bill Clinton publicly urged it.
The judge also noted that Saipov’s case had many of the same aggravating factors that frequently have led the Justice Department to seek death — including “indiscriminate acts of extreme violence” inspired by a terror group, premeditation, and a “depraved” method of killing.
Saipov’s lawyers had no comment on the ruling.