NEW YORK (AP) – A man who drove his car through crowds in Times Square in 2017, in which a young tourist was killed and mutilated helpless pedestrians were released on Wednesday due to mental illness.
A jury in New York City accepted a mental illness defense claimed that Richard Rojas was so mentally disturbed that he did not know what he was doing.
The judge has said the result would qualify Rojas for an open “involuntary mental engagement” instead of a longer prison sentence. He ordered Rojas detained while drafting an exam order, saying there would be a hearing on the case Thursday.
Rojas, 31, who was passive throughout the trial, had no visible reaction to a verdict handed down after less than two days of deliberation.
The defendant was charged with assault that injured more than 20 people and killed Alyssa Elsman, 18, from Michigan, who visited the popular tourist destination with her family.
The jury was instructed that if it found that prosecutors had proved elements of the charges of murder and assault, it would also have to decide whether Rojas “lacked responsibility due to mental illness or defect.”
Rojas’ lawyer Enrico DeMarco told out-of-court journalists that the verdict was “right and humane”, adding that winning the jury was a battle uphill, “because it was such a horrible act.”
In a statement, District Attorney Alvin Bragg said his office “condolences continue to be with family, friends and loved ones to Alyssa Elsman, who suffered a horrific and tragic loss, and all the victims of this horrific incident.”
Jyll Elsman, mother of Alyssa, reacted with dismay in a message on social media.
“In fact, the only thing I have to say is if this had happened to any of the children of the juries – would they still have said ‘not responsible’?” she wrote.
The trial, which began at the beginning of last month, contained testimonies from victims who suffered serious injuries from what the prosecutors described as “a horrific, corrupt act.”
On the defense side, family members testified about how Rojas fell into paranoia after he was thrown out of the Navy in 2014.
There was never any doubt that Rojas was behind the wheel of the car. Several safety videos showed him getting out of the vehicle after it crashed. It put the case’s focus on his mental state.
In his concluding argument, prosecutor Alfred Peterson admitted that Rojas had a psychotic episode, including hearing voices, at the time of the vandalism. But Peterson claimed that Rojas showed that he was not completely detached from reality by maneuvering his vehicle out onto the sidewalk and driving with precision in three blocks, mowing people down until he crashed.
One of the victim’s pelvis was separated from her spine. The doctors were sure she would die, but she somehow survived. Elman’s younger sister Eva, then 13, testified during the trial about her own injuries: broken ribs, a collapsed lung, a complex bone fracture and other wounds that kept her in the hospital for weeks.
“The defendant made a decision that day,” prosecutor Peterson said. “He made a choice.… He went to ‘the crossroads of the world’, a high-profile place where everyone knows there are lots and lots of people.”
When he was first there, he had “full control of his car,” he added.
DeMarco told jurors that “there should be no doubt” that his client met the legal standard for a mental illness. The evidence, the lawyer said, showed that Rojas “lacked a significant ability to know what he was doing was wrong” due to an underlying disease – schizophrenia, as diagnosed by a defense psychiatrist who testified.
The defense attorney played a videotape in the courtroom where Rojas jumped out of his car after it crashed into a sidewalk post. Rojas could be heard shouting, “What happened? Oh my God, what happened?” when he was subdued, and could be seen banging his head on the ground.
Rojas, the lawyer said, “lost their minds.”