Man who drove through crowd in Times Square found not responsible

Richard Rojas, who drove his car through crowds of people during a 2017 psychotic episode, qualifies for ‘mental commitment’.

Richard Rojas, right, appears in court for the start of his trial in New York
Richard Rojas in 2017 drove his car through a crowd of people in Times Square, New York, killing one person and injuring more than 20 [File: Seth Wenig/AP Photo]

A jury in New York City accepted an insanity defence for Richard Rojas, a 31-year-old who drove his car through a crowd of people in the popular tourist destination Times Square, killing an 18-year-old tourist and injuring more than 20 people, some critically.

Rojas will now face the possibility of “involuntary mental commitment” instead of a long prison sentence for the incident, which took place in 2017.

That Rojas drove the vehicle in question was never in dispute: according to the Associated Press, security footage shows him emerging from the car after the crash. The case, then, centred around whether Rojas “lacked responsibility by reason of mental disease or defect”.

The jury found that he did, clearing him of responsibility on the grounds that he did not understand his actions.

Prosecutors had argued that Rojas demonstrated awareness of his actions and called the event a “horrific, depraved act”. Alyssa Elsman, an 18-year-old from Michigan visiting New York with her family, was killed in the incident.

The trial began in early May and included testimony from victims who suffered serious injuries when Rojas drove down the sidewalk for three blocks, ploughing through crowds of people. One victim had her pelvis separated from her spine, and another, then 13 years old, suffered from a series of severe injuries that kept her hospitalised for weeks.

The prosecution argued that Rojas exhibited enough awareness of his surroundings to cast doubt on claims that he was not responsible for his actions since Rojas manoeuvred his vehicle onto the sidewalk and was able to drive with precision for several blocks until he crashed.

“The defendant made a decision that day,” said the prosecutor, Alfred Peterson, arguing that Rojas was “in full control of his car”.

However, the defence argued that Rojas had descended into paranoia after being expelled from the Navy in 2014, and the prosecution conceded that Rojas was having a psychotic episode that included hearing voices in his head at the time of the incident.

A psychiatrist testified on behalf of the defence that Rojas had schizophrenia, and defence lawyer Enrico DeMarco stated that there was “no doubt” that Rojas met the standard for insanity.

DeMarco also showed the jury video footage that showed Rojas exiting his car after he crashed, yelling “What happened? … Oh my God, what happened?” as he is subdued and banging his head against the ground.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies