By Brendan Pierson
(Reuters) – Lawyers for Sayfullo Saipov, the man accused of killing eight people by driving a truck into a New York City bike path in October, on Thursday asked a federal judge to bar prosecutors from seeking the death penalty, saying President Donald Trump’s statements on Twitter have made a fair legal process impossible.
In a motion filed in Manhattan federal court, Saipov’s lawyers said that Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who must decide whether to pursue the death penalty, cannot be objective because Trump has pressured him to make decisions based on “nakedly political considerations” and has called for Saipov to be executed.
The lawyers pointed to a Monday tweet in which the president criticized the “Jeff Sessions Justice Department” for indicting two Republican congressmen “just ahead” of the upcoming congressional elections.
They also cited two tweets following Saipov’s arrest calling for him to face the death penalty.
Together, they said, Trump’s tweets make it impossible for Sessions to “exercise independent discretion” on the matter.
They asked that if the judge declines to bar the death penalty altogether, 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, was arrested in October immediately after police said he plowed a truck down a bike lane on Manhattan’s West Side. Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack, which was the deadliest assault on New York City since Sept. 11, 2001.
He was charged in an indictment with eight counts of murder and other crimes including attempted murder and providing material support to Islamic State. He has pleaded not guilty.
Following the attack, Saipov told investigators he was inspired by watching Islamic State videos and began planning the attack a year earlier, according to a criminal complaint filed by prosecutors the day after the attack.
Saipov made a public statement at a pre-trial hearing in June, speaking of a “war” led by Islamic State to establish sharia, or Islamic law, on earth, and dismissing the court’s judgement as “not important.”
(Reporting By Brendan Pierson in New York; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)