Trump’s tweets seen as unlikely to slow New York terror case

NEW YORK (AP) — President Donald Trump’s tweets calling for the death penalty for the man charged in the New York truck rampage could be seized on by defense attorneys as evidence of bias, but they are unlikely to amount to even a speed bump in the case, legal experts said Thursday.

In a highly unusual instance of a president weighing in on the fate of a defendant awaiting trial, Trump said on Twitter that 29-year-old Sayfully Saipov “SHOULD GET DEATH PENALTY!” in the attack that left eight people dead. In another tweet, Trump said prosecutors “Should move fast. DEATH PENALTY!”

Some legal experts said judges in Manhattan’s federal courts will not let the president’s remarks slow the case or throw it off track, especially in a courthouse with a quarter-century record of swift terrorism prosecutions with mostly airtight outcomes.

“Nothing slows down the train,” said James Cohen, a professor at Fordham Law School. He said the yet-to-be-assigned judge will question prospective jurors to ensure they can be fair despite anything they might have heard or read.

Karen Greenberg, director of the Center on National Security at Fordham Law School and a frequent observer at terrorism trials, said: “Because this is in federal court, this will happen both speedily and without it interfering with the normal process of the trial.”

Lawyers differed over whether Trump was out of bounds.

“Even presidents are entitled to First Amendment rights,” said Michael Wildes, a former federal prosecutor.

However, Joshua Dratel, a veteran defense attorney in terrorism cases, said: “It’s inconceivable that it would be fair to seek the death penalty when the president has expressed it twice in a tweet. It poisons the jurors, all the prospective jurors.”

In bringing terrorism charges against Saipov that could bring the death penalty, federal prosecutors Wednesday said the Uzbek immigrant used a rental truck to mow down people along a bike path after being inspired by Islamic State propaganda videos.

Investigators continued poring over Saipov’s phone records and online contacts and combing surveillance footage to reconstruct his movements in the weeks before the rampage.

They were also interviewing acquaintances and family, including his wife, who according to a law enforcement official was cooperative and claimed she did know about the attack beforehand. The official who was not authorized to discuss the investigation and spoke on condition of anonymity.

At one point, the FBI put out a bulletin seeking any information on a fellow Uzbek immigrant, Mukhammadzoir Kadirov, but quickly canceled it after locating him.

The law enforcement official said Kadirov was a friend of Saipov’s and may not have a role in the case at all, but authorities got suspicious because he “went off the radar” when they went to speak with him. He was questioned and released.