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New York bike path killer avoids death penalty as jury deadlocks

A rift among jurors in the United States has resulted in no death penalty for a man from Uzbekistan accused of deliberately racing a truck down a popular New York City bike path, killing eight people and disfiguring others.

The standoff means Sayfullo Saipov, a 35-year-old who lived in New Jersey, will receive an automatic life sentence without the possibility of parole for the October 2017 attack. A federal jury told the judge Monday they were unable to get to reach the unanimous verdict needed for a death sentence.

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

The same jury convicted Saipov in January of 28 charges, including murder for extortion and support of a terrorist organization.

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

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

Saipov’s responsibility for the murders never existed. His lawyers admitted that he steered his rental truck onto a busy Lower Manhattan bike path along the Hudson River on a sunny day in an attempted martyrdom.

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

Prosecutors said he smiled when he asked to hang an ISIL (ISIS) group flag 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 the death penalty. However, US law still allows for execution by federal authorities for exceptional crimes.

While some US states routinely send inmates to death row, New York last executed an inmate in 1963 and effectively abolished the death penalty in its state in 2007.

A day after the attack, then-President Donald Trump tweeted that Saipov “Should BE PENALTY OF DEATH!”

Biden pledged during his campaign to work for the abolition of the federal death penalty, and there have been no federal executions since taking office.

U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland has imposed a moratorium on executions for federal crimes in 2021, but has allowed U.S. prosecutors to continue advocating for the death penalty in cases inherited from previous administrations.

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

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 the trial. But at his 2019 hearing, he lectured Judge Vernon S. Broderick on the American justice system, insisting he could not be convicted of eight deaths while “thousands and thousands of Muslims are dying around the world.”

Lawyers made a final appeal to jurors during closing arguments in the penalty phase on Tuesday.

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

Defense attorney David Patton pushed for a life sentence, saying his client will then “die in prison in darkness, not a martyr, not 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 case 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 had murdered two New York City Police Department detectives, but both sentences were overturned on appeal before a judge ruled that the killer had an intellectual disability.

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

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