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January 26, 2023
The man who drove his car through crowds of people in Times Square in 2017, killing an 18-year-old girl and injuring 22 others, on Wednesday was found not responsible for the incident because of mental illness.
The Manhattan jury found 31-year-old Richard Rojas “not responsible by reason of mental disease or defect” on one count of murder and 23 assault charges related to the incident. The jury accepted the defense’s argument that Rojas so psychologically disturbed that he didn’t know what he was doing.
The judge has said the verdict would qualify Rojas for an open ended “involuntary mental commitment,” rather than lengthy prison time. He ordered Rojas be held while he drafts an examination order, adding that a hearing on the matter would be held Thursday.
“The defendant made a decision that day,” assistant District Attorney Alfred Peterson said. “He went to the ‘crossroads of the world,’ a high profile place where everyone knows there’s lots and lots of people.”
After he crashed, Rojas told a traffic agent that he “wanted to kill them all,” according to prosecutors. He also told police that he had been smoking PCP-laced marijuana before the incident.
A psychiatrist testified that Rojas, who had been dishonorable discharged from the Navy in 2014 for DUI, was diagnosed with schizophrenia. According to NBC News, he has also been arrested twice arrested for DWI.
Rojas’ attorney Enrico DeMarco called the verdict “right and humane.” DeMarco told jurors “there should be no doubt” his client met the legal standard for an insanity finding. The evidence, he said, showed Rojas “lacked a substantial capacity to know what he was doing was wrong.”
DeMarco said Rojas had “lost his mind” and played for the jury a video from after the crash, in which Rojas was banging his head on the ground as he was being detained and yelling “What happened?” “Oh my God, what happened?”
In his closing argument, prosecutor Alfred Peterson conceded that Rojas was having a psychotic episode, including hearing voices, at the time of the incident. However, Peterson argued that Rojas showed he was, for the most part, in control of his actions by maneuvering his vehicle onto the sidewalk and driving with precision for three blocks, running into people until he crashed.
“The defendant made a decision that day,” Peterson said. “He made a choice. … He went to the ‘Crossroads Of The World,’ a high profile place where everyone knows there’s lots and lots of people.” Once there, he was “in full control of his car,” he added.
Thomas Elsman, father of Alyssa Elsman – the 18-year-old who died in the incident – has blasted Rojas’ insanity defense during the trial, telling The New York Post last week, “they’re trying to make up stories.”
“I think it’s bulls—t,” Elsman said even before the verdict was decided. “I think, honestly, they have no defense and they’re trying to make up stories and he was on drugs. No, he wasn’t. It’s all zero, it all came back, all the drug tests were clean. So he knew what he was doing, he knew what he did.”
MANAGING EDITOR: CARSON CHOATE
PHOTO CREDITS: NBC NEWS