The Hudson River bike path in Lower Manhattan was transformed that sunny Halloween day in 2017: There were mangled bicycles, their riders lying unconscious or dead, screams filling the air and survivors staggering around wounded as they searched for relatives and friends.
It was a “scene of destruction and horror,” a federal prosecutor told a Manhattan jury on Monday at the opening of the trial of Sayfullo Saipov, the man accused of driving a rental truck down the path, killing eight people and wounding more than a dozen others, all in the name of the Islamic State.
Mr. Saipov “ran over them, crushed their bodies, sent them flying into the air, left them bleeding to die,” the prosecutor, Alexander Li, said in Federal District Court in Manhattan.
“The defendant killed to become a member of ISIS and he did it right here in New York,” he added.
Mr. Saipov is the first person to face a death penalty trial during the administration of President Biden, who had campaigned against capital punishment. Shortly after Mr. Saipov’s arrest in 2017, President Donald J. Trump tweeted, “SHOULD GET DEATH PENALTY!” His attorney general later authorized prosecutors in the Southern District of New York to seek Mr. Saipov’s execution if he was convicted.
Mr. Saipov’s lawyers last year asked the Justice Department under President Biden to withdraw the death penalty request, but Attorney General Merrick B. Garland refused.
On Monday, Mr. Saipov’s lawyer, David E. Patton, the city’s federal public defender, took a surprising tack in his opening statement, admitting that his client, an Uzbek immigrant, had driven the truck down the bike path, causing the deaths and injuries. “It wasn’t an accident — he did it intentionally.” Mr. Patton said.
“Mr. Saipov caused unimaginable pain and suffering,” Mr. Patton told the jury. “There is no excuse for what he did, and we will not offer one to you.”
But he disputed the government’s assertion that Mr. Saipov carried out the attack in order to join ISIS, an Islamist terrorist group that once held sway over large areas in Iraq and Syria and has pledged to create a new Muslim caliphate. He portrayed his client, who moved to the United States in 2010 at the age of 22 and worked as a long-haul truck driver, as having become caught up in ISIS propaganda. Mr. Patton said he spent many hours consuming ISIS audio and videos and immersing himself in its violent messaging, social media and chat groups.
“He had become convinced it was a religious obligation for him to commit a martyrdom attack to avenge the killing of Muslims around the world — and that it was God’s will to do that,” Mr. Patton said. “And as we sit here today, he still believes that.”
Prosecutors have said that a cellphone found in Mr. Saipov’s truck contained about 90 videos, many of which were ISIS-related, including fighters shooting and beheading prisoners and instructions for making a homemade explosive device. The phone also contained 3,800 images, including many of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, then ISIS’s leader.
Mr. Li, in his opening statement, said the evidence would show that Mr. Saipov, who lived in Paterson, N.J., drove the truck into Manhattan and headed south on the West Side Highway. As he neared Houston Street, he pulled onto the bike path and almost immediately began plowing into victims.
He slammed into one group of 10 friends from Argentina, who were riding bicycles in pairs.
“The defendant struck and killed every single rider from the left side of the column,” Mr. Li said. H.
As Mr. Saipov drove faster and faster, Mr. Li said, he killed two more people, driving over one man and crushing his body and hitting another, sending his body flying into the air.
As he raced his truck down the path, he crashed into the side of a school bus. Inside were two children and two adults, including the driver. One of the children suffered serious brain damage, Mr. Li said.
Mr. Saipov jumped out of the truck, carrying paintball and pellet guns and yelling “Allahu akbar,” Arabic for “God is great,” prosecutors have said. He was arrested after he was shot in the abdomen by a New York City police officer.
Mr. Li said the jurors would hear testimony from a government expert who calculated that Mr. Saipov’s truck, in the moments before it slammed into the school bus, reached a speed as high as 66 miles per hour.
Of the eight people killed in the attack, six were tourists: the five from Argentina and one from Belgium. The other victims were a 24-year-old computer scientist from Manhattan and a 32-year-old financial worker from a New Jersey suburb.
It was the deadliest terrorist attack in New York City since Sept. 11, 2001, the authorities have said.
Mr. Saipov’s attack was one of a number of terrorist attacks around the world in 2016 and 2017, when ISIS encouraged its followers to “act wherever you are,” said Mr. Patton, the defense lawyer. The Islamic State claimed responsibility for a truck attack in Nice, France, in 2016 that left 86 people dead on the national Bastille Day holiday, but a French judge said there was no evidence of a link.
The Manhattan judge, Vernon S. Broderick, told the jury that the trial could last three months. The 12 jurors first will consider whether Mr. Saipov is guilty of the charges, and if they reach that verdict, they will decide whether he should be sentenced to life imprisonment or death.
Mr. Saipov sat quietly in court on Monday between two of his lawyers. He wore a green jacket and a white mask that did not fully cover his scraggly beard. Mr. Saipov turned halfway back in his chair once the jury was dismissed for the lunch break, appearing to glance at the spectators seated behind him.
Mr. Patton, the defense lawyer, told the jury that his client had been held in solitary confinement since his arrest.
In the government’s opening statement, Mr. Li told jurors that after Mr. Saipov was arrested, he was treated at Bellevue Hospital, where “he was eager to speak with the F.B.I.”
He said he was “proud of his attack,” Mr. Li said, that his goal was to kill as many people as possible, and he even asked to display an ISIS flag in his hospital room. A few days later, ISIS issued an announcement that Mr. Saipov had become a soldier of the caliphate and claimed responsibility for the attack, he said.
Mr. Patton told jurors that they would be “called upon to determine” his client’s “purpose in committing this attack.” He said some might be wondering why it should matter whether Mr. Saipov “did this terrible thing” because he wanted to become a member of ISIS or because he believed that it was God’s will.
The reason it mattered, Mr. Patton said, was that the issue was critical to the case.
Certain charges against Mr. Saipov say he committed the bike path murders “for the purpose of gaining entrance to ISIS.”
One expert, Daniel C. Richman, a criminal law professor at Columbia Law School and former federal prosecutor, said if the jury finds that the government “has not satisfied an element of the crime, they need to acquit on those charges.”
Mr. Richman said that since motivation is a critical element of certain charges, “the defense is setting up the argument that this was not somebody fixated on joining an actual terrorist enterprise.”
Even if the jury does convict, he added, the defense might seek to argue as a mitigating factor in the death penalty phase that Mr. Saipov’s attack was motivated more by ISIS propaganda than by any desire to become a member of the organization.
On Monday, as the prosecutor described the New York attack, many spectators in the gallery appeared tearful, leaning on each other for support. One woman wiped her eyes with a tissue. Some wore headsets that had been handed out to victims and their relatives who had come from overseas to provide a translation of the proceedings.
One woman holding a headset held a laminated photo of a young man who was killed during the attack. A white bandanna was spread out on the bench near her, which read: “Que el amor venza al odio” — Spanish for “may love defeat hate.”