Trial begins for man charged in West Side Highway bike path Halloween terror attack

ByEyewitness News WABC logo
Monday, January 9, 2023
Trial begins for man charged in NYC bike path terror attack
The trial for Sayfullo Saipov, the man charged in the deadliest terror attack in New York since September 11, could result in the death penalty. Darla Miles has the story.

LOWER MANHATTAN, Manhattan (WABC) -- A bike path on the west side of Manhattan became a "scene of destruction and horror" when Sayfullo Saipov struck and killed eight people with a truck, an attack carried out so Saipov could become a full-fledged member of the Islamic State, a prosecutor said Monday during opening statements at a trial that could result in the death penalty.

The prosecutor, Alexander Li, promised to show jurors photos of mangled bicycles and bodies, video of the truck racing down the highway and video of the defendant running through the street before a police officer shot him. He said witnesses would testify about the "roar of the engine" and the "horrible grinding noise as he ran over bicycles and people."

Saipov was seated at the defense table wearing an olive shirt, face mask and headphones so he can fellow the trial through translation into his native Uzbek.

If he is convicted and sentenced to lethal injection, Saipov would be the first federal defendant put to death from a New York case since Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in 1953.

The truck Saipov rented reached a top speed of 66 miles per hour before crashing into a school bus near Stuyvesant High School with two children aboard, one of whom was badly injured, Li said.

"The man who did this was Sayfullo Saipov," Li said. Right after the attack the defendant proudly declared why: he did it for ISIS. The defendant killed to become a member of ISIS and he did it right here in New York."

Prosecutors said Saipov picked New York City for the attack because he knew it's a busy, crowded city. Had he not crashed into the bus, prosecutors said Saipov would have continued onto the Brooklyn Bridge. He chose Halloween in 2017 "because he knew there would be lots of people on the streets," Li said.

The defense on Tuesday left no question about Saipov's guilt in the 2017 truck terror attack in Manhattan.

"A little over five years ago Sayfullo Saipov drove a rented truck down the West Side Highway. He killed eight innocent people. It wasn't an accident. He did it intentionally," defense attorney David Patton said.

"He did it because he had become immersed in ISIS messaging online. And he had become convinced it was a religious obligation for him to commit a martyrdom attack to avenge the killings of Muslims around the world. And as we sit here today he still believes that."

The defense choice of effectively admitting guilt echoed the strategy of another death penalty defendant charged in a terror attack, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who was convicted of the Boston Marathon bombing.

"If the only question whether that was Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in the video you will see...or if that was Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in the boat...it would be very easy for you. It was him," Tsarnaev's attorney, Judy Clark, said in opening statements of that trial in March 2015.

"Mr. Saipov caused unimaginable pain and suffering. There is no excuse for what he did and we will not offer one," Patton said.

Rather, Patton said he would challenge the prosecution's assertion of motive, namely that Saipov carried out the attack in order to join ISIS.

"That is not why he did this," Patton said. "He had no real connection to ISIS, the organization, other than begin on the receiving end of the messaging."

The defense said Saipov's life "changed dramatically" after he left his native Uzbekistan, where he had been surrounded by family, and came to the United States where he became a driver. Isolated from community and often alone, Saipov was drawn into an "online world of grievance and conspiracy theories," Patton said.

The defense cast Saipov as part of a shift in ISIS focus from attacking on the battlefields of Iraq and Syria to encouraging followers to attack locally by convincing them they were fighting for a righteous cause.

"And so on October 31, 2017 he rented a truck from Home Depot," Patton said. "He brought with him a pellet gun and a paintball gun and a number of knives in a bag and a note that said 'there is no god but god and Muhammed is his messenger.'"

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