Driver in fatal attack on Times Square not found responsible due to mental illness

Written by Javed Iqbal

The reddish-brown Honda appeared to appear in Times Square out of nowhere one day in the spring of 2017, swinging out onto a curb on 42nd Street and then speeding north along the sidewalk on Seventh Avenue, strikes more than 20 people and scattered dozens of others before hitting a bollard on 45th Street.

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

Mr. Rojas killed a 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 being treated for a collapsed lung and broken pelvis.

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

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

Once a judgment on not being liable due to mental illness or defect has been entered into, state law requires a judge to order the defendant to undergo a psychiatric examination. If the court finds that defendant has a “dangerous mental illness,” it must then issue an order ordering defendant in custody with the state mental health commissioner.

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

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

Outside the courthouse, Thomas Elsman, Alyssa’s father, said the verdict was more than disappointing.

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

Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg noted in a release after the sentencing that Mr. Rojas would remain in custody.

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

The Times Square attack was not Mr Rojas’ 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 allegedly assaulted a taxi driver.

He was brought before the court-martial in 2013 and pleaded guilty to drink-driving, non-payment of a debt, drunk and restless behavior and conveying a threat. Mr. Rojas spent two months inside a naval brigade and received in 2014 what the navy called a “other than honorable” discharge.

When Mr. Rojas returned to the Bronx, said friendshe seemed paranoid and irritable, expressing scorn for the government and cracking down on taxes, parking fines and police stops.

Barely a week before the Times Square incident, Mr Rojas was, according to court documents, charged with threatening 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 are trying to steal my identity,” Mr Rojas said during this incident, according to a criminal complaint.

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

That voice played a key role in the incident on Seventh Avenue, Mr. De Marco, the defense attorney, to jurors during his summary, saying that “a god-like person named James commands him to drive his car into people.”

“He is following a command from a supernatural being,” Mr. From Marco. “His reality is changed 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, reiterated in his summary the serious injuries suffered by several people whom Mr Rojas hit with his car, and some of them had testified.

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

Mr. Peterson told jurors that although Mr. Rojas thought he was hitting “spirits” on the Seventh Avenue sidewalk, he must have known he was also hitting real people, given his ability to perform a U-turn and drive under scaffolding without crashing into the shown competence and consciousness.

Afterwards, Mr Peterson said, Mr Rojas fought with a traffic agent and tried to flee, which showed that he was thinking, “I did something wrong and I have to get away.”

Mr. Rojas also told doctors the police should have shot him and was heard saying while in custody: “I will never get out,” Mr. Peterson and pointed to these statements as further evidence that Mr. Rojas knew he had committed crimes.

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

“He realized the situation he was in and offered an apology,” Mr. Peterson to juries. “It’s strong evidence that he knew what had happened in Times Square.”

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Javed Iqbal

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