Lawyers for an Uzbek-born man accused of killing eight people by driving a truck down a New York City bike path have asked a U.S. judge to rule out the death penalty, contending that President Donald Trump's statements against him have made a fair legal process impossible.
In a motion filed in a Manhattan district court on September 6, Sayfullo Saipov's lawyers said that U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who must decide whether to pursue the death penalty, cannot be objective because Trump has called for Saipov to be executed and has pressured Sessions to make decisions based on what they called "nakedly political considerations."
The lawyers cited Trump Twitter posts lambasting Sessions over politicially sensitive decisions and calling for the death penalty after Saipov's arrest in October at the scene of the killings.
The lawyers cited a November 1 tweet by Trump which said: "NYC terrorist was happy as he asked to hang [Islamic State] flag in his hospital room. He killed 8 people, badly injured 12. SHOULD GET DEATH PENALTY!"
Trump in later tweets described Saipov as a "degenerate animal" and repeated his call for the death penalty.
Saipov's lawyers argued that Trump's tweets make it impossible for Sessions to "exercise independent discretion" on the case.
"A decision not to seek death would inevitably trigger a 'tweetstorm' of ridicule and scorn from the president and might well lead to the loss of his job," they said.
Should the judge decide not to bar the death penalty, the lawyers asked that an independent prosecutor be appointed to make the decision in place of Sessions.
A spokesman for U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman, whose office is prosecuting Saipov, declined to comment. The U.S. Department of Justice did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Saipov, a 30-year-old Uzbek national who emigrated to the United States and became a citizen, has been charged with eight counts of murder and other crimes punishable by death for allegedly mowing down eight people on a Manhattan bike path near the site where the World Trade Center's twin towers once stood.
The Islamic State extremist group claimed responsibility for the attack, and police said Saipov told investigators in interviews immediately after the attack that he was inspired by watching IS videos.
Since that time, he has pleaded not guilty to the attack. His lawyers have said he would be willing to settle the case with prosecutors if they agree not to seek a death sentence.
Saipov made a public statement at a pre-trial hearing in June, speaking of a "war" led by Islamic State to establish Shari'a, or Islamic law, on Earth, and dismissing the court's judgment as "not important."
Saipov's family told RFE/RL's Uzbek Service that they believe he was radicalized after moving to the United States.