NEW YORK (AP) — A man who drove his car through crowds in Times Square in 2017, killing a young tourist and maiming helpless pedestrians was acquitted of responsibility on Wednesday due to mental illness.
A jury in New York City accepted a mad defense claiming that Richard Rojas was so mentally disturbed that he didn’t know what he was doing.
The judge has said the finding would qualify Rojas as an open-ended “involuntary mental commitment” rather than a lengthy prison sentence. He ordered Rojas to be detained while he drafted an exam warrant, saying there would be a hearing on the case Thursday.
roja, 31, was charged with assault that injured more than 20 people and killed Alyssa Elsman, 18, of Michigan, who was visiting the popular tourist destination with her family.
The jury was instructed that if it found that prosecutors had proved elements of murder and assault, it also had to decide whether or not Rojas was responsible because of mental illness or disability.
Rojas’ attorney Enrico DeMarco told reporters out of court that the verdict was “just and humane,” adding that winning the jury was an uphill battle “because it was such a terrible act.”
In a statement, District Attorney Alvin Bragg said his office “expresses condolences to the family, friends and loved ones of Alyssa Elsman, who suffered a terrible and tragic loss, and all victims of this horrific incident.”
The lawsuit, which started early last month, contained testimonies of victims who suffered serious injuries from what prosecutors called “a heinous, depraved act.”
On the defense side, relatives testified how Rojas descended into paranoia after being thrown from the navy in 2014.
The fact that Rojas was behind the wheel of the car was never in dispute. Multiple security videos showed him getting out of the vehicle after it crashed. That put the focus of the case on his mental state.
In his closing statement, prosecutor Alfred Peterson admitted that Rojas was having a psychotic episode, including hearing voices, at the time of the disaster. But Peterson argued that Rojas showed that he was not completely disconnected from reality by maneuvering his vehicle on the sidewalk and driving three blocks accurately, mowing people until he crashed.
A victim’s pelvis was separated from her spine. Doctors were sure she would die, but she somehow survived. Elsman’s younger sister Eva, then 13, testified at trial about her own injuries: broken ribs, a collapsed lung, a compound fracture of the leg and other wounds that kept her hospitalized for weeks.
“The defendant made a decision that day,” said the prosecutor, Peterson. “He made a choice. … He went to the ‘crossroads of the world’, a prominent place where everyone knows there are a lot of people.”
Once there, he was “in full control of his car,” he added.
DeMarco told the jurors “there should be no doubt” that his client met the legal standard for an insanity finding. The evidence, the attorney said, showed that Rojas “did not have a substantial ability to know what he was doing wrong” because of an underlying illness — schizophrenia, as diagnosed by a defense psychiatrist who testified.
The defense attorney played a videotape in the courtroom of Rojas jumping from his car after it crashed into a curb. Rojas could be heard yelling, ‘What happened? … Oh my God, what happened?” while he was being subdued, and he could be seen banging his head on the ground.
Rojas, the lawyer said, “lost his mind.”