NEW YORK (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump on Thursday reiterated his call that the Uzbek immigrant accused of killing eight people by speeding a rental truck down a New York City bike path should get the death penalty.
The suspect, Sayfullo Saipov, told investigators he was inspired by watching Islamic State videos and began planning Tuesday’s attack a year ago, according to the criminal complaint filed in federal court against him on Wednesday.
Saipov, 29, said “he felt good about what he had done” and asked for permission to display the flag of the militant group Islamic State in his hospital room, the complaint said.
Trump had suggested on Wednesday sending Saipov to the Guantanamo Bay military prison in Cuba, where terrorism suspects apprehended overseas are held, but on Thursday he said doing so would be too complicated.
“Would love to send the NYC terrorist to Guantanamo but statistically that process takes much longer than going through the Federal system,” Trump said on Twitter.
He added: “There is also something appropriate about keeping him in the home of the horrible crime he committed. Should move fast. DEATH PENALTY!”
One of the two charges Saipov faces, violence and destruction of motor vehicles causing the deaths of eight people, carries the death penalty if the government chooses to seek it, acting U.S. Attorney Joon Kim said.
Of the hundreds of detainees held at Guantanamo since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington, just eight have been convicted in military trials or admitted guilt by plea bargains, according to Human Rights watch.
TWEETS AND THE DEATH PENALTY
Trump’s tweets calling for the death penalty for Saipov before Saipov even had a chance to enter a plea to the charges he faces could work to the defense’s advantage by giving his lawyers a chance to argue they prejudiced potential jurors.
“The defense is sure to raise this as unfair and raising questions about a jury being able to reach an impartial verdict,” said James Acker, a professor at the School of Criminal Justice at the State University of New York in Albany who specializes in the death penalty.
It could be used to make an argument that a judge should not allow the death penalty as a sentencing option, Acker said, adding that “the likelihood of that succeeding is very small.”
Saipov’s defense attorney did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Asked by reporters whether he thought Saipov should be executed if convicted, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said he categorically opposes the death penalty.
“I‘m not someone who believes in the death penalty in general, I just don‘t,” de Blasio told a news conference near the site of Saipov’s attack. “I believe this is an individual who should rot in prison for the rest of his life.”
Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the surviving member of a pair of ethnic Chechen brothers who killed three people and injured more than 260 when they bombed the 2013 Boston Marathon in an attack inspired by the al Qaeda militant group, was sentenced to death in 2015. He is the only inmate among the 61 people on federal death row convicted for an act charged as terrorism.
Senator Lindsay Graham, a Republican, on Thursday repeated his criticism of the Justice Department for charging Saipov in the courts rather than treating him as an enemy combatant.
“I‘m dumbfounded as to why the Trump Administration still follows the Obama playbook when it comes to dealing with terror suspects,” Graham said in a statement, which echoed comments he made on Wednesday.
Declaring Saipov an enemy combatant would have allowed investigators to interrogate him without having a lawyer present.
Saipov did waive his right to remain silent or have an attorney when he agreed to speak to investigators from his bed at Bellevue Hospital Center in Manhattan, where he was being treated after being shot by a police officer, according to the criminal complaint.
The complaint said he was particularly motivated by a video in which Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi – the leader of Islamic State – exhorted Muslims in the United States and elsewhere to support the group’s cause.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation said it had located another Uzbek man, Mukhammadzoir Kadirov, 32, wanted for questioning as a person of interest in the attack.
U.S. law enforcement officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because the investigation was continuing, told Reuters that Saipov had been in contact with Kadirov and another person of interest in the investigation.
Five Argentine tourists, a Belgian woman, a New Yorker and a New Jersey man were killed in Tuesday’s attack. It was deadliest attack that officials labeled terrorism in New York since 2001, when hijackers crashed two passenger planes into the World Trade Center, killing more than 2,600 people.
Additional reporting by Mark Hosenball in Washington and Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee; Writing by Scott Malone; Editing by Frances Kerry and Leslie Adler