NEW YORK (AP) — A man who drove his car through crowds in Times Square in 2017, killed a Michigan teen and maimed helpless pedestrians, was acquitted on Wednesday of mental illness.
A jury in New York City accepted an insanity defense alleging that Richard Rojas was so mentally disturbed that he didn’t know what he was doing.
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The judge has said the finding would qualify Rojas as an “involuntary mental commitment” for an indefinite period rather than a lengthy prison sentence.
Rojas, 31, was charged with an attack that injured more than 20 people and killed Alyssa Elsman, 18, from Portage, who was visiting the popular tourist destination with her family.
The jury was instructed that if it found that prosecutors had proved their case, it also had to decide whether or not he was responsible because of a mental illness or disability.
The trial, which began early last month, included testimonies from victims who had been seriously injured in what prosecutors called “a horrific, 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.
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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.
Defense attorney Enrico DeMarco told 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.
DeMarco played a videotape in the courtroom of Rojas jumping out of his car after it crashed into a sidewalk. 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.
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