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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

As US argued for death penalty, bike path victims gave voice to pain

Sayfullo Saipov’s truck attack was the deadliest act of terrorism in New York since Sept. 11, killing eight people.

By Lola Fadulu

A little girl standing on her toes to place her palm on her deceased father’s image on a television screen. A mother who has left her son’s bedroom exactly as it was on Halloween 2017. A man married to a woman who lost her legs who clutches a pair of her socks in bed every night, yearning for the contact of her feet.

The federal jury deciding on a death penalty for Sayfullo Saipov, the man convicted last month of killing eight people and injuring many others in a truck attack inspired by the Islamic State group, has heard from more than 20 witnesses, including victims, relatives and bystanders. On Wednesday, the prosecution rested its case, and Saipov’s lawyers began trying to save his life.

The jury, which convicted Saipov, began the trial’s separate punishment phase on Feb. 13. To make its case, the government has sought to show the severity of the crime’s impact on its victims and those close to them.

Most witnesses who have taken the stand in the U.S. District Court in Manhattan have described what their lives have been like since the day Saipov sped down a West Side bike path and killed their loved ones.

Saipov is the first defendant to face a federal death penalty trial during the administration of President Joe Biden, who campaigned against the practice.

“He is not remorseful, and the evidence shows that he is dangerous even in prison,” said Amanda Houle, a federal prosecutor, during the government’s opening statement. “The United States is seeking the most severe penalty that the law provides: a sentence of death.”

Stories of grief

Six of the eight people who died were tourists from Argentina and Belgium; the others were Nicholas Cleves, a 23-year-old software engineer from Manhattan, and Darren Drake, a 32-year-old financial worker from New Jersey.

On Tuesday, Kristen Wilkens, the first cousin of Drake, said she had lost a treasured confidant.

“He was my safe place and a place to keep secrets,” she said. “Every day that I go anywhere, there’s reminders of him and how the world just changed that day.”

Ana Evans, the widow of Hernan Mendoza, described to the jury through an interpreter the moment they met — and the difficulty of telling their three children that their father had died.

“Daddy. That’s daddy. I’m missing him,” Evans recalled her 3-year-old daughter saying as she saw her father’s image on the television screen.

Monica Missio, the mother of Cleves, described the difficulty she’s had reading his journals, many of which start with “I’m grateful to be alive.”

She said her son’s Halloween costume was still folded in his bedroom, as he had left it.

Aristide Melissas and his wife, Marion Van Reeth, two Belgians who survived the attack, sold their home because Van Reeth could not navigate it with her wheelchair. Melissas described his more than 20 months in rehabilitation, and how he still can’t work full time.

“I thought of ending my life,” Melissas testified. “Every time I go in bed, I’m seeking for the feet of my wife,” he said, adding that he holds the socks she wore the night before the attack, “the last night she still had her feet.”

Maria Alejandra Sosa, the widow of Alejandro Pagnucco, described how each night she and her two daughters kiss the urn containing his ashes.

A ‘dangerous’ prisoner

Two guards from the Federal Bureau of Prisons described Saipov’s behavior behind bars in New York.

“He is still threatening to eliminate people in prison, threatening to slit the throats of correction officers,” Houle said during her opening statement.

Rosa Proto, a former officer at the Metropolitan Correctional Center, a now-closed lockup in Manhattan, told jurors how Saipov in 2019 had covered a surveillance camera in his cell.

Proto recalled Saipov saying he wouldn’t uncover it because an officer on the night shift had been “an animal.” She said Saipov said he wouldn’t uncover the camera “until his head is chopped off.”

The man from ADX

On Wednesday, defense attorneys called on Chris Synsvoll, an attorney for the Bureau of Prisons, who described the Florence, Colorado, prison complex where Saipov could live out his life — locked in a small cell for 23 hours a day with a concrete bed, a concrete desk, a concrete stool and a sliver of a window.

As a new arrival, Saipov would get two monitored 15-minute calls a month, three showers a week and no interaction with other inmates. Meals would be served through a sliding cell-door panel. Only after a year of good behavior could he receive additional privileges, Synsvoll testified, which could include extra phone calls and showers.

ADX Florence is the country’s highest-security prison and is considered the toughest. Zacarias Moussaoui, a 9/11 conspirator, is held there along with Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, the 1993 World Trade Center bombing mastermind.

What’s next?

Saipov’s relatives were in the courtroom Wednesday, although they were not slated to testify until Thursday. The group of at least five, including Saipov’s father, sat quietly during the testimony, listening through an interpreter.

They sat separately from the victims’ families, who did not interact with them. Saipov at one point turned his head to look in their direction.

In addition, an expert on Islamic State propaganda will describe why Saipov, who traveled to the U.S. alone, fit the profile of a person who could be influenced by its message.

The parties have told the judge that the case could run into March. The government will then have the opportunity to make a rebuttal.

“In the end of this case, you will be asked to make that momentous, unique, individual, moral choice the judge has described to you,” David Stern, a lawyer for Saipov, said during his opening statement. He said the jury would not be like Saipov: “We will show a civilized sense of justice.”

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