The Death Penalty and the 10/31 Terrorist Attack

The terrorist from last year’s Halloween attack is on trial for the death penalty, but that shouldn’t be the case.

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By Jason Lin

In the deadliest terrorist attack in New York since September 11, 2001, Sayfullo Saipov plowed a truck into the Hudson River bike path directly outside of Stuyvesant High School, killing eight people and injuring 12 more. As Stuyvesant students were preparing to leave school, Saipov exited his crashed van with a pellet and paintball gun and shouted “God is great” in Arabic before getting shot in the abdomen by a police officer. Following his arrest, he revealed that he was inspired by Islamic State videos, that he was intending to kill as many civilians as possible, and that he would have continued his rampage had he not crashed the van.

Following the attack, Saipov pleaded not guilty to 22 federal counts including murder, attempted murder, and provision of material support and resources to a designated foreign terrorist organization. However, Saipov’s lawyers have stated that he will plead guilty if the government prosecutes him for a life sentence instead of the death penalty. As of now, federal prosecutors are still seeking the death penalty, but there have been disagreements over two points of controversy.

The first controversy arose when President Trump tweeted “SHOULD GET DEATH PENALTY!” when referring to Saipov after the attack. While Saipov’s defense argued that this put tremendous pressure on then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions to pursue the death penalty, Sessions stated that the Justice Department “will not be improperly influenced by political considerations.”

The second and more fundamental controversy in this trial has to do with whether or not capital punishment is morally, constitutionally, and pragmatically right. If any crime were to “deserve” the death penalty, Saipov’s purposeful massacre of eight people and his intentions to kill even more would. And yet capital punishment in the United States is shakily defined in the Constitution, it has a record of being given to wrongfully accused people, and is a costly process. And though it can sometimes bring closure to the families of victims and act as a deterrent for future crime, these slight benefits do not outweigh the costs of capital punishment.

The origins of capital punishment go back to the Eighth Amendment in the Bill of Rights, which states that “excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.” The definition of the last part of this clause, “cruel and unusual punishments,” is hotly debated. All that can clearly be determined from it is that it outlaws ancient and “barbaric” forms of torture and that it serves to limit government power and protect citizens in the same manner as the 14th Amendment, which prohibits states from denying “any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.”

Over time, the Supreme Court has added clarity to the clause, stating that the death penalty is not applicable to people 18 years or younger, that people with intellectual disabilities cannot be executed, and that the death penalty must be applied fairly to all people and not disproportionately to people of a certain race, gender, etc. The death penalty is currently legal in 30 states, and, in most instances, it occurs by lethal injection (the electric chair, gas chambers, and hanging have all been deemed “cruel and unusual” in most states and are considered as second options in other states). While lethal injection is the most humane and least painful method of execution, a shortage of the necessary drugs (there is no longer an American supplier, and the European Union, the primary producer, prohibits selling them for use in capital punishment) has prevented many states from executing people without complications that make the process painful and cruel.

Perhaps more important than how the death penalty is given is who is given the death penalty. Between 1989 and 2015, 116 people have been exonerated from death row across the United States. In addition, a Columbia Law School study found that there were mistakes in the conduction of two-thirds of all capital trials and that when cases were appealed, seven percent of people were found not guilty. This is atrocious, and perhaps the most important reason why the death penalty should not be implemented in the U.S. is because it can and has killed innocent people. As stated in Blackstone’s formulation, “It is better that 10 guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.” If the U.S.’s criminal justice system executes even one innocent person, those are grounds to say that the justice system isn’t truly just and that the death penalty should not be a punishment unless we can convict people with 100 percent certainty.

Even if the morality of the death penalty wasn’t at play, from a pragmatic perspective, the death penalty should not be applied, as it is much more costly than a life sentence. On average, the death penalty can cost $1.2 million more than life imprisonment. These fees are crucial to ensuring full certainty that the accused are guilty, especially considering that the death penalty is an irreversible punishment. The Justice Department can’t risk avoiding these fees as long as there exists even a minuscule possibility that someone was wrongfully confused.

In examining the specific case of Saipov’s deadly terrorist attack, it is unquestionable that the murders he committed and the damage he caused are immoral, inhuman, and atrocious. If anyone were to “deserve” the death penalty, or if there would ever be enough evidence to correctly indict someone, that person would be Saipov. Yet Saipov should not receive the death penalty because doing so would reaffirm support in a system of punishment that is based on shaky constitutional backing and that has a history of wrongful convictions and overly expensive trials.