Driver in Times Square Carnage Was Mentally Ill: Jury

Decision sets up Richard Rojas for involuntary commitment
By Bob Cronin,  Newser Staff
Posted Jun 22, 2022 6:05 PM CDT
Jury: Driver Was Mentally Ill During Times Square Carnage
Richard Rojas, right, appears in court for the start of his trial in New York on May 9.   (AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File)

(Newser) – A New York jury agreed with the defense on Wednesday that a man who drove through a Times Square crowd in 2017, hitting more than 20 people, was not responsible for his actions. After deliberating for about six hours, the jury cleared Richard Rojas—who was charged with murder, assault, and other crimes—"by reason of mental disease or defect," WNBC reports. Alyssa Elsman, 18, of Michigan, was killed that day, and 22 people were injured. Among the injured were her sister, Eva, 13 at the time, who testified in Rojas' trial. Eva's injuries included broken ribs, a collapsed lung, and a compound leg fracture, per CBS News. The sisters were visiting the city with their family.

The jury's decision qualifies Rojas, 31, for involuntary mental confinement of indefinite duration, the judge said, in lieu of a prison sentence. Rojas' first words when he was reached after his car crashed were "I wanted to kill them all," a prosecutor said during the trial. It was "impossible for him not to know exactly what was happening," Alfred Peterson told the jury. The defense said Rojas had a history of mental illness and couldn't understand the consequences of what he'd done. Relatives said he'd become paranoid after the Navy kicked him out in 2014 after an arrest and court-martial that began with accusations he'd assaulted a cabdriver, per the New York Times. "This a case about a 26-year-old who lost his mind," Enrico DeMarco said.

The mother of the Ava and Alyssa told the jury the family was "just looking around, kind of eyeballing someplace to eat," when a car ran up onto the sidewalk. Jyll Elsman told the jury she was knocked down, and everything went black briefly. She then got up and looked for her daughters. Ava was on the ground but alert, her mother said. When she found Alyssa, Elsman said, she saw that her daughter's eyes weren't moving and knew that she was dead. "All I could do was scream," she said. The judge said he'll write an examination order and hold a hearing on the next step for Rojas on Thursday. (Read more insanity defense stories.)

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