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Driver with schizophrenia ruled not responsible for Times Square rampage

Richard Rojas persuaded a jury to find him not responsible by reason of mental disease or defect for the fatal car rampage five years ago in Midtown Manhattan.

MANHATTAN (CN) — A New York City jury returned a verdict on Wednesday finding that the U.S. Navy veteran who sped his Honda Accord through three blocks of Times Square in 2017, killing one tourist and injuring at least 20 others, was not responsible for 24 counts of murder and assault.

After roughly six hours of deliberation beginning the afternoon prior, the 12-member jury ruled Richard Rojas, 31 was "not responsible by reason of mental disease or defect.”

Wednesday's verdict concludes the long-delayed trial five years after Rojas drove maroon Honda Accord south along Seventh Avenue in the late morning on May 18, 2017, before making a U-turn and driving onto the sidewalk between 42nd and 45th streets, hitting many pedestrians along the way.

Two months after the incident, Rojas was charged with felony counts of murder in the second degree, attempted murder in the second degree, and assault in the first and second degrees.

Rojas will remain in New York City's custody until Thursday morning, when Judge Daniel Conviser will issue an examination order turning him over to a state hospital operated by the Office of Mental Health.

The judge had insinuated the possibility of a paradoxical outcome from Rojas’ case at the start of trial this month: Jurors could find Rojas guilty while at the same time deciding that he “lacked responsibility by reason of mental disease or defect.” Conviser said the finding would qualify him for an open-ended “involuntary mental commitment” instead of a lengthy prison term.

The top charge — second-degree murder, a class A felony —required the prosecution to show that Rojas “evinced a depraved indifference to human life,” counsel for the Manhattan District Attorney’s office advised the jury during closing arguments last week.

Since the trial began, Rojas’ attorney Enrico DeMarco maintained that Rojas was “actively psychotic” at the time of the crash and should be judged not responsible for any crime “by reason of mental disease or defect.”

DeMarco told jurors during his closing summation last week that “there should be no doubt” that his client met the legal standard for an insanity finding. The evidence, DeMarco said, showed Rojas “lacked a substantial capacity to know what he was doing was wrong” because of an underlying illness — schizophrenia, as diagnosed by a defense psychiatrist.

DeMarco played a videotape in the courtroom of Rojas jumping out of his car after crashing it into a sidewalk stanchion. Rojas could be heard yelling, “What happened? … Oh my God, what happened?” as he was being subdued, then seen banging his head on the ground. Rojas “was a lunatic,” the attorney said. “He lost his mind.”

Rojas was hearing supernatural voices — what psychologists call “command or auditory hallucinations” — as he careened through Times Square, DeMarco told jurors. The schizophrenic delusions and hallucinations told Rojas he was navigating an interdimensional “portal” filled with spirits who could be freed from a purgatorial “limbo” if he crashed into them.

The crash killed Alyssa Elsman, an 18-year-old tourist from Portage, Michigan, and also injured her 13-year-old sister Ava, who testified as a prosecution witness at Rojas’ trial five years later. Ava Elsman recounted her injuries from the attack to the jurors: broken ribs, collapsed lung, a compound leg fracture and other damage that kept her off her feet for months.

In his closing, prosecutor Alfred Peterson conceded that Rojas was having a psychotic episode, including hearing voices, at the time of the rampage. But Peterson argued Rojas showed he wasn’t entirely detached from reality by maneuvering his vehicle onto the sidewalk and driving with precision for three blocks until he crashed.

“The defendant made a decision that day,” the prosecutor 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,” Peterson added.

Peterson, a former Marine captain, showed jurors a sequence of grisly crime-scene and hospital photographs of individual victims of the Times Square rampage, detailing the injuries each suffered. “There is no doubt that he was operating that car and he was able to perceive everything that was going on around him,” Peterson said. “He had substantial capacity, not just surface knowledge, of everything he was dealing with that day,” the prosecutor added later.

Nearly a dozen of Rojas’ relatives attended the daily trial proceedings, along with victims and victims’ family members who were present at the trial’s opening and closing arguments.

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