On Halloween 2017, Sayfullo Saipov plowed a rented pickup truck down Manhattan’s crowded West Side bicycle path, smashing into pedestrians and cyclists, killing eight people and injuring more than a dozen. Soon after Saipov was charged, President Trump tweeted, “SHOULD GET DEATH PENALTY!” His attorney general directed prosecutors to seek execution. Last year, Saipov’s lawyers asked President Biden’s Justice Department to withdraw that order. Biden had campaigned against capital punishment. Attorney General, Merrick Garland denied the request and on Monday, Saipov’s trial is scheduled to begin, the first federal death penalty trial under the Biden administration, reports the New York Times.
Garland’s decision to pursue the death penalty for Saipov, an Uzbek immigrant, suggests a nuanced approach, one in which he has been reluctant to withdraw the threat of capital punishment in one type of case in particular: terrorism-related offenses. The decision has stirred debate among legal scholars and death penalty activists. Some argue that he should adhere to the anti-death-penalty stance Biden took in his campaign, while others note that the president has never announced any formal policy position on capital punishment. Since taking office in 2021, Garland has not sought capital punishment in any new case and has declared a nationwide moratorium on federal executions. The Justice Department has also withdrawn directives issued by previous administrations seeking the death penalty against 25 federal defendants. At the same time, the department has defended appeals of the death sentences imposed during President Obama’s administration on Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the Boston Marathon bomber, and Dylann Roof, the white supremacist who killed nine members of a Black church in South Carolina. There are 44 federal death row prisoners, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.