US federal prosecutors have signalled their intention to seek the death penalty against the Uzbek immigrant accused of killing eight people – including five Argentine friends – in a New York truck rampage last October, should he be convicted at trial.
Sayfullo Saipov, 30, allegedly drove a rented pick-up truck down a mile-long stretch of bike path in Manhattan as children and their parents prepared to celebrate Halloween on October 31, 2017.
It was the deadliest attack in New York since the September 11, 2001 al-Qaeda hijackings brought down the Twin Towers.
Five of those killed – Ariel Erlij, Hernan Diego Mendoza, Diego Enrique Angelini, Alejandro Damian Pagnucco, and Hernan Ferruchi – were friends from Argentina celebrating 30 years since their high school graduation. Twelve other people were wounded. The attack only ended when police shot Saipov in the abdomen.
The government filing said the case against Saipov met several legal standards for a capital case, including premeditation to commit terrorism and the "heinous, cruel and depraved manner" in which the victims were slaughtered. They said the decision had been taken given the severity of the attack, the multitude of victims, because he was likely to commit further violence in the future and because he showed no remorse.
In a statement, defence attorney David Patten said he was disappointed that the Justice Department signed off on seeking the death penalty.
"We think the decision to seek the death penalty rather than accepting a guilty plea to life in prison with no possibility of release will only prolong the trauma of these events for everyone involved," Patten said.
In the wake of the attack, US President Donald Trump called for Saipov to be executed, but a capital punishment case is extremely rare in New York, which has abolished the death penalty at the state level.
Trump tweeted, "SHOULD GET DEATH PENALTY" and "Should move fast. DEATH PENALTY." The tweets were cited in defence papers filed earlier this month that demanded an independent prosecutor make a decision, arguing that Attorney General Jeff Sessions' tenuous relationship with Trump made it impossible for DOJ to be fair.
Sessions "works for President Trump and obviously wants to keep his job," Saipov's federal public defenders wrote. "It defies reality, not to mention all appearances, to believe that he could make a truly independent decision as to whether Mr. Saipov should face the death penalty, knowing that a decision not to seek death would inevitably trigger a 'tweetstorm' of ridicule and scorn from the President and might well lead to the loss of his job."
In a separate filing on Friday, prosecutors said the argument "strains credulity" because there was no evidence that the decision was influenced by politics.
"After fully complying with the law and Justice Manual, the attorney general appropriately exercised his discretion in determining that the circumstances of this case - which involve a terrorist attack that caused extensive death and human suffering - justify the ultimate sanction available," prosecutors wrote.
Saipov claimed to have acted in the name of the Islamic State jihadist group and is due to go on trial in October, 2019, on a raft of terrorism and murder charges. The IS group described him as one of its "soldiers."
The Uber driver and father-of-three has pleaded not guilty to the charges. Prosecutors said after his arrest that he felt so good about what he had done that he even demanded to hang the IS flag in his hospital room.
Prosecutors say he planned an attack for a year and chose Halloween deliberately in a bid to kill as many people as possible.