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Trial on deadly NYC street rampage heaves open with schizophrenia defense

Nearly five years after he plowed through three busy blocks of pedestrians in Times Square, the Navy veteran driving the car finally appeared before a jury.

MANHATTAN (CN) — A lawyer for the U.S. Navy veteran who killed a teenage tourist after driving his red Honda Accord the wrong way up Seventh Avenue and into at least 20 other pedestrians laid out his client's insanity defense Monday for the start of their long-delayed trial.

“Does that not sound like a crazy man,” the attorney Enrico DeMarco remarked, claiming that, as Richard Rojas careened through the streets of Midtown Manhattan five years ago, Rojas believed he was navigating an interdimensional “portal” filled with spirits who could be freed from a purgatorial “limbo” if he crashed into them.

On the morning of the crash, Rojas, then 26, drove his car from the Bronx, where he lived with his mother, through the so-called Crossroads of the World, then made a U-turn, steered his car onto a sidewalk, and roared back up the sidewalk for three blocks before he crashed his car at a 45-degree angle onto a cement security bollard.

When Rojas was finally apprehended, DeMarco continued, he asked the officers why was he in custody and later tried to jump out of his seat in a police car. In court Monday, the attorney offered an answer to that question: “You were subdued by like 10 or 15 men in the middle of Times Square."

DeMarco insists 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." The defense requires Rojas to prove he lacked the substantial capacity to know or appreciate the prohibited conduct that he committed.

Rojas faces an 29-indictment, which carries a top count of second-degree murder for the death of Alyssa Elsman, an 18-year-old tourist who was the only fatality of the carnage that Rojas unleashed upon Times Square on May 18, 2017.

Members of Elsman’s family from Portage, Michigan, are in New York this week for the trial. Several of them wept in the courtroom gallery on Monday as Assistant District Attorney Alfred Peterson described how Alyssa’s mother recognized the 18-year-old daughter’s body at the scene of the rampage. “She was mangled, she was contorted, and she was lifeless,” the prosecutor said. “Her spleen was described as pulpified.”

Alyssa's younger sister Ava Elsman, who was also injured during the deadly crash, is expected to testify as one of the prosecution’s first witnesses.

Richard Rojas, of the Bronx, N.Y., appears in Manhattan Criminal Court on May 19, 2017. Rojas was arrested after mowing down a crowd of Times Square pedestrians with his car. (R. Umar Abbasi/New York Post via AP, Pool)

The trial is expected to take several months. Rojas appeared subdued in court Monday, wearing peach-colored prison garb, his hands cuffed at a waist chain and his hair tied back in a frizzy bun.

Defense attorney DeMarco exclaimed during opening arguments on Monday that Rojas was delusional and schizophrenic at the time of the Times Square incident and experiencing what psychiatrists call “command hallucinations,” hearing instructions in his head that he believed were coming from a “divine spiritual being."

“What this case is about is a 26-year old man that lost his mind,” said DeMarco, a former Brooklyn prosecutor, explaining Rojas gave one of the voices in his head the name James. Rojas purportedly considered the other, unnamed, to belong to a young Black woman.

The government says Rojas did what he did out of frustration not insanity, pointing to a toxicology report conducted on Rojas after the crash that found only trace amounts of marijuana — nothing of the the hallucinogenic drug PCP that Rojas told police he had been smoking. PCP can cause users to become delusional, violent or suicidal, but Peterson said that doesn't explain what was going on with Rojas.

On the morning of the Times Square rampage, Peterson continued, Rojas was hopeless and “acutely aware that nothing was working out and going right in his life."

Having botched his marriage, his career in the Navy and an attempt at college, Rojas was “doing not much but abusing a lot of drugs," Peterson told jurors.

The defense argued meanwhile that Rojas’ history of mental illness dates back to “an early age.” Rojas enlisted in the Navy in 2011, DeMarco acknowledged, but spent most of his military time in treatment for his mental health in Jacksonville, Florida. Once Rojas was dishonorably discharged, De Marco said Rojas was unable to get continuing mental health treatment from the Department of Veteran Affairs.

DeMarco enumerated the various outlets that Rojas looked to for mental health treatment following military life. It was only after Rojas tried the Church of Scientology in 2016, made two unsuccessful attempts at suicide and participated in a Santeria ritual in the Dominican Republic that he landed on self-medication through alcohol, marijuana and the so-called synthetic marijuana also known as “K2” or “spice."

First responders treated victims in Times Square on May 18, 2017, after a wrong-way driver killed one pedestrian and injured nearly two dozen others. (FDNY via Courthouse News Service)

Rojas purportedly sought help from the Church of Scientology, whose Manhattan office is located near Times Square on West 46th Street, because he believed the church was part of a so-called “One World Order” — likely a reference to conspiracy theory that hypothesizes a totalitarian world government.

His mental deterioration had been rapidly escalating in the days before the Times Square incident, during which Rojas had been referred by a job recruiter to an outpatient mental health center for veterans in the Bronx.

DeMarco told jurors that Rojas had spoken to a social worker there who has been subpoenaed to testify as a defense witness.

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