A Jury in Manhattan Weighs a Matter of Life and Death
Good morning. It’s Monday. We’ll look at a question that federal prosecutors will put before a jury today — a question involving a punishment that hasn’t been imposed on a defendant in Manhattan in decades.
Credit…Sam Hodgson for The New York Times
The question for the jury is whether Sayfullo Saipov, 35, should be executed.
Saipov was convicted last month of killing eight people as he drove a truck down a West Side bike path in 2017. The authorities have called the incident the deadliest terror attack in New York City since Sept. 11, 2001.
Now comes the phase of Saipov’s trial that will determine his punishment. Prosecutors are pushing for the death penalty. I talked with Benjamin Weiser, who has followed the trial with our colleague Lola Fadulu, about the issues surrounding the decision the jurors will make.
In a way, this is a story of who the jurors are. What do we know about that and how the composition of the jury might affect what goes on in the jury room?
As in all criminal trials, one factor is where the individual jurors come from. This jury is anonymous — the jurors’ names have not been made public — and we don’t know much about them. We do know that they live in what is known as the Southern District of New York, which typically draws jurors from Manhattan, the Bronx and Westchester as well as five other downstate counties north of the city.
What’s interesting about a Southern District trial, particularly one held in Manhattan, is that jurors come from a mix of cosmopolitan and rural areas, and there is also a diversity of race, ethnicity, financial status and political viewpoints. All of those factors would seemingly ensure that a defendant like a Saipov would have his or her case heard by a cross-section of the community.
But a cross-section of the community here is different from a cross-section in other places. Stephen Bright, a lawyer who has represented death penalty defendants in three Southern states and also teaches at Yale Law School, told us that if you try a death-penalty case in the Southern District of Alabama — in Mobile, Alabama, for example — you’d probably have a very different outcome.
Moreover, in a federal death penalty case, the composition of the jury is tilted in the government’s favor, because a prospective juror who is unalterably opposed to capital punishment — an absolutist — is not allowed on the jury. Every one of the 12 jurors in Saipov’s case had to indicate during jury selection that he or she would be willing to vote for the death penalty in the appropriate case.
Death penalty trials are different from regular criminal trials, right?
Saipov was convicted on Jan. 26. A conviction in a death penalty case leads to a second phase before the same jury, in which there is only one question — whether to impose capital punishment or not.
The one advantage the defense has, if you can call it an advantage, is that the vote in the death penalty phase must be unanimous. All the defense has to do is convince a single juror that the defendant does not deserve death. If there’s an 11-to-1 vote for death, the result will be life in prison.
How rare are death penalty trials in the Southern District of New York?
Very rare. The last federal executions in New York State, all stemming from Southern District trials, were about 70 years ago. In 1954, a bank robber named Gerhard Puff was executed for killing an F.B.I. agent. The year before that, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed in the notorious spy case.
The last death penalty trial I covered was in early 2001, when two followers of Osama bin Laden who had been convicted in a terrorism case faced hearings in the Southern District on whether they should receive the death penalty. For each man, the jury voted 9 to 3 in favor of execution; the lack of unanimity meant they received life imprisonment. Since then, there have been two other death penalty trials in the Southern District. The defendants in both cases also ended up with life sentences.
The Saipov case is the first death penalty trial in Manhattan in a terrorism case since the 9/11 attacks. Of course, there’s no way to know what that might mean for Saipov.
This is also the first death penalty trial held since President Biden took office.
That’s notable because he campaigned against the death penalty, and his attorney general, Merrick Garland, ordered a nationwide halt to all federal executions in July 2021 pending a review of the Justice Department’s policies and procedures.
That followed the final six months of Donald Trump’s administration, when 13 federal death row inmates were executed.
After Saipov was arrested, Trump said on Twitter that Saipov “SHOULD GET DEATH PENALTY!” and later, the attorney general at the time instructed prosecutors in the Southern District to seek the death penalty if they won Saipov’s conviction.
Since Biden has taken office, the Justice Department, under the new attorney general, Garland, reversed earlier decisions to seek the death penalty in cases involving more than two dozen defendants around the country. But Garland denied a request from Saipov’s lawyers to reverse the decision to seek the death penalty in his case, and that’s why the jury is going to consider the question beginning on Monday.
Again, this phase of the trial has nothing to do with guilt or innocence. The jury convicted Saipov. The only question is what his punishment should be.
How long will this phase go on, and whom will the jury hear from?
It could last a month or more, most likely into March. One reason is that both sides are expected to call witnesses. Family members of those who were killed as well as survivors are expected to testify for the prosecution about the impact on their lives.
The defense has said it will call members of Saipov’s family. Saipov’s lawyers are bringing them here from Uzbekistan, his native country, presumably to offer a fuller portrait of his upbringing and the influences on him. One legal expert told us the burden the defense faces is to turn Saipov, in the jurors’ minds, from a terrorist into a human being.
Enjoy a mostly sunny day near the mid-50s. At night, it’s mostly clear, with temps dropping to around the high 30s.
Suspended today (Lincoln’s Birthday).
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My best friend and I were on our way to get pizza near Fordham’s Manhattan campus on a warm spring day in the 1980s when we saw a small crowd of people gathered on the sidewalk. They were looking up and pointing.
Looking up ourselves, we saw a sparrow that was chirping furiously and appeared to be stuck to the pole. Everyone seemed concerned but there was nothing to be done because the bird was out of reach.
My friend and I hurried to a phone booth on the corner and called the operator. We told her about the little bird and asked what we could do.
She gave us the number of the nearest firehouse and told us to call. My friend repeated the number over and over so we wouldn’t forget it before we dialed.
The firefighter who answered the call told us that they would be right over but that they would have to leave if they got an emergency call whether or not they had been able to free the bird.
A few minutes later, a fire engine pulled up. Its siren wasn’t on but its lights were flashing.
A ladder went up against the pole, and a firefighter climbed up. He found that a piece of twine had gotten tangled around the bird’s leg.
The firefighter freed the sparrow, cradled it in his large, gloved hand, climbed back down and set it carefully on the grass beneath a tree.
The crowd cheered. My friend and I continued on our way. We were really ready for that pizza now.
— Theoni Angelopoulos
Illustrated by Agnes Lee. Send submissions here and read more Metropolitan Diary here.
Glad we could get together here. See you tomorrow. — J.B.
P.S. Here’s today’s Mini Crossword and Spelling Bee. You can find all our puzzles here.
Melissa Guerrero and Ed Shanahan contributed to New York Today. You can reach the team at email@example.com.