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First federal death penalty case heard under President Joe Biden, who made campaign pledge not to seek capital punishment

A courtroom sketch shows Sayfullo Saipov, the Uzbek man charged with using a truck to kill eight people on a Manhattan bike path on Halloween in 2017. He is listening to his defense lawyer David Patton in front of U.S. District Judge Vernon S. Broderick during opening statements at his federal trial in New York City Jan. 9, 2023 in this courtroom sketch. (OSV News illustration/Jane Rosenberg, Reuters)

The terrorism trial of Sayfullo Saipov, who is accused of fatally striking eight people with a truck in New York City in 2017, began Jan. 9 and marks the first federal death penalty case heard under President Joe Biden, who pledged as a candidate to end the practice at the federal level.

Saipov, who allegedly carried out the deadliest terror attack in New York since 9/11, faces charges eligible for the death penalty.

Then-President Donald J. Trump wrote in a 2017 tweet that Saipov should be executed if convicted, and his administration had instructed prosecutors to seek capital punishment in the event of that conviction.

But when Saipov’s lawyers requested in 2022 that Biden’s Justice Department withdraw that directive, Attorney General Merrick Garland denied their request, prompting the administration’s first federal death penalty trial despite the campaign pledge made by Biden, who is the nation’s second Catholic president.

Opening arguments in the trial began Monday, Jan. 9. Saipov has pleaded not guilty in federal court to the 28 counts against him, including murder, attempted murder and other terrorism-related charges.

In his 2020 encyclical “Fratelli Tutti,” Pope Francis cited St. John Paul II, whom he said “stated clearly and firmly (in the encyclical ‘Evangelium Vitae’) that the death penalty is inadequate from a moral standpoint and no longer necessary from that of penal justice.” He also revised the Catechism of the Catholic Church (No. 2267) to reflect that position in 2018.

Krisanne Vaillancourt Murphy, executive director of the Catholic Mobilizing Network, a group that opposes capital punishment in line with Catholic teaching, told OSV News that although Garland implemented a temporary moratorium on federal executions, “the Department of Justice otherwise maintains a ‘business as usual’ approach to federal death penalty cases.”

“The DOJ continues to vigorously defend the death sentences of all 42 people currently on the federal death row,” Vaillancourt Murphy said. “The case of Sayfullo Saipov is just one of many instances where the DOJ’s efforts to defend federal death sentences call into question the stated priorities of the Biden administration.”

Vaillancourt Murphy noted that Biden is the first U.S. president to have campaigned on an openly anti-death penalty platform, and his administration declared a moratorium on federal executions.

“Why, then, is his Department of Justice actively defending and pursuing death sentences?” she asked. “It sends mixed signals to the American public when our president professes anti-death penalty values while simultaneously allowing his Department of Justice to pursue death sentences.”

Vaillancourt Murphy said that “federal executions are not an abstract concept.” She noted the Trump administration executed 13 people in 2020 and 2021 after a two-decade lull.

“If President Biden is serious about his commitment to ending the federal death penalty, he needs to abandon his current passive approach,” she said.

Vaillancourt Murphy further called on Biden to follow through on his promise by using his executive power “to commute the death sentences for all those on the federal death row.”

She said federal capital punishment is “a flawed and morally bankrupt system that violates the sanctity of human life.”

“Executing Sayfullo Saipov will not deter crimes like his — in fact, it could even create a notoriety that some want to emulate,” Vaillancourt Murphy said. “If our nation really cares about reducing violence in our society, we can’t continue the cycle of violence through executions. We need to put our energies toward real healing and protection of the vulnerable.”