Death Penalty for NYC Truck Attack Suspect?

By Christopher Coble, Esq. on November 02, 2017 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

'DEATH PENALTY!' So tweeted President Donald Trump, in response to the deadly truck attack in New York City this week. The president elaborated that he "[w]ould love to send the NYC terrorist to Guantanamo," but "[t]here is also something appropriate about keeping him in the home of the horrible crime he committed."

It's probably for the best that Trump's tweets don't define criminal jurisdiction under federal or state law. But is he right that the suspect, 29-year-old Uzbek immigrant Sayfullo Saipov, could face the death penalty?

State and Federal Death Penalty Laws

Under state law, capital punishment for Saipov wouldn't be an option. New York abolished the death penalty in 2007, and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio told reporters he remains opposed to the death penalty across the board. "I'm not someone who believes in the death penalty in general, I just don't," de Blasio said during a press conference regarding Saipov's attack. "I believe this is an individual who should rot in prison for the rest of his life."

However, Saipov wasn't charged under New York state law. Instead, Saipov was charged under federal law with one count of providing material support and resources to a foreign terrorist organization (in this case the Islamic State) and one count of violence and destruction of motor vehicles causing the deaths of eight people.

According to U.S. Attorney Joon Kim, the former count carries a maximum penalty of life in prison, while the latter would make Saipov eligible for the death penalty if the government chose to seek it and he is convicted. Kim also noted that additional or different charges could be brought later in an indictment as the investigation continues.

Civil Rights and Capital Punishment

Despite Senator John McCain's call for the revocation of all civil rights for certain terrorism suspects, Saipov waived his rights to remain silent and avoid self-incrimination, and told investigators he had been planning the attack for a year, chose Halloween for the attack because he believed more people would be on the streets, and made a trial run to practice turning the vehicle a week earlier. Saipov also allegedly requested permission to display the flag of the Islamic State militant group in his hospital room.

Saipov had his first court appearance yesterday, during which he did not ask for bail, was appointed a public defender, and was remanded to federal custody.

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