Driver in Fatal Times Square Attack Found Not Responsible Because of Mental Illness & More news

 

The maroon Honda seemed to appear in Times Square out of nowhere one day in the spring of 2017, swerving onto a curb on 42nd Street, then speeding north along the sidewalk on Seventh Avenue, striking more than 20 people and scattering dozens of others before ramming a bollard at 45th Street.

Witnesses said the driver, Richard Rojas, tried to flee but was quickly apprehended. “I wanted to kill them,” Mr. Rojas told a traffic enforcement agent at the time, according to a criminal complaint.

Mr. Rojas killed one person, Alyssa Elsman, 18, from Michigan, who was visiting New York City with relatives, and seriously injured several others, including Alyssa’s 13-year-old sister, Ava, who was treated for a collapsed lung and broken pelvis.

On Wednesday, after about six hours of deliberation, jurors found Mr. Rojas “not responsible by reason of mental disease or defect” on one count of murder and 23 assault charges. Many defendants in the American legal system suffer from mental illness, treated or untreated. The decision in New York Supreme Court in Manhattan was one of only a few recent instances in which a jury found that the illness outweighed evidence of guilt.“It’s a humane verdict,” one of Mr. Rojas’s lawyers, Enrico De Marco, said as he left the courthouse. “Finally, he’s going to get the care he really needs.”

The judge who heard the case, Daniel Conviser, ordered that Mr. Rojas be held, and said he would draft an examination order.

When a verdict of not responsible by reason of mental disease or defect is entered, state law requires a judge to order that the defendant undergo a psychiatric examination. If the court finds that the defendant has a “dangerous mental disorder,” it must then issue an order committing the defendant to the custody of the state commissioner of mental health.

Mr. Rojas’s rampage through one of the city’s most crowded areas lasted only minutes, but caused intense panic, conjuring comparisons to an attempted car bombing in Times Square in 2010 and to episodes in which terrorists used automobiles as weapons.

His trial, which took place over several weeks, centered on his mental condition at the time of the incident. The defense asked jurors to find Mr. Rojas not responsible for his actions. Prosecutors countered that even if Mr. Rojas had been experiencing delusions during the incident, he was competent enough to know that he was harming people.

Outside the courthouse, Thomas Elsman, the father of Alyssa, said that the verdict was more than disappointing.

The family, he said, would not get to tell the court about the impact of his daughter’s death. And Mr. Rojas, he said, deserved punishment. “He doesn’t go to jail,” Mr. Elsman said.

The Manhattan district attorney, Alvin Bragg, noted in a release after the verdict that Mr. Rojas would remain in custody.

“Our condolences continue to be with the family, friends and loved ones of Alyssa Elsman, who suffered a terrible and tragic loss, and all of the victims of this horrific incident,” he said.

The Times Square attack was not Mr. Rojas’s first encounter with the law. After growing up in the Bronx, he spent three years in the Navy. In 2012, he was arrested near a base in Florida and charged with battery after an incident in which he was said to have assaulted a cab driver.

He was court-martialed in 2013 and pleaded guilty to drunken driving, failure to pay a debt, drunk and disorderly conduct and communicating a threat. Mr. Rojas spent two months inside a Navy brig and in 2014 received what the Navy called an “other than honorable” discharge.

When Mr. Rojas returned to the Bronx, friends said, he seemed paranoid and irritable, expressing scorn for the government and railing against taxes, parking tickets and police stops.

Just under a week before the Times Square incident, according to court documents, Mr. Rojas was charged with menacing and criminal possession of a weapon after using a knife to threaten a man who came to his mother’s apartment to notarize documents for him. “You’re trying to steal my identity,” Mr. Rojas stated during that incident, according to a criminal complaint.

Some of Mr. Rojas’s relatives testified as defense witnesses, describing how, as one of his lawyers said, he had “descended into madness,” even attempting suicide. Two psychiatrists also took the stand for the defense, with one testifying that Mr. Rojas gave a name, “James,” to a disembodied voice that he said he heard.

That voice played a key role in the incident on Seventh Avenue, Mr. De Marco, the defense lawyer, told jurors during his summation, saying that “a godlike person called James commands him to crash his car into people.”

“He’s following a command from a supernatural being,” Mr. De Marco added. “His reality is altered by his acute psychotic state.”

Mr. De Marco also told jurors that Mr. Rojas had not made the statement about wanting to kill people that the police attributed to him.

A prosecutor, Alfred Peterson, in his summation, reprised the grievous injuries suffered by several people Mr. Rojas struck with his car, some of whom had testified.

There was Caroline Johns, an executive assistant, who was out for lunch; she suffered a punctured lung. There was Jessica Williams, a high school senior in Midtown who was on her senior skip day; her spine detached from her pelvis. And there was Thomas Henry, a retired Metropolitan Transportation Authority worker who was with family; he was hit in the head and has lasting cognitive issues.

Mr. Peterson told jurors that even if Mr. Rojas believed he was striking “spirits” on the Seventh Avenue sidewalk, he must have known that he was also striking real people, since his ability to execute a U-turn and drive beneath scaffolding without crashing into it showed competence and awareness.

Afterward, Mr. Peterson said, Mr. Rojas fought with a traffic agent and tried to flee, showing that he was thinking: “I did something wrong and I need to get away.”

Mr. Rojas also told doctors that the police should have shot him and was heard saying while in custody, “I’m never getting out,” Mr. Peterson added, pointing to those statements as further evidence that Mr. Rojas knew he had committed crimes.

After the attack, police officials said, Mr. Rojas claimed he had smoked PCP. But toxicology tests did not detect the powerful mood-altering drug in Mr. Rojas’s urine or blood, Mr. Peterson said, suggesting that was another indication that the defendant was aware of what he had done.

“He realized the situation he was in and offered an excuse,” Mr. Peterson told jurors. “It is powerful evidence that he knew what had happened in Times Square.”

 

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