The man who killed 18-year-old Alyssa Elsman and injured 22 other pedestrians after plowing through a crowd in Times Square in 2017 has been found not responsible for his crime by reason of insanity.
Richard Rojas, 31, who suffers with schizophrenia, 31, learned of his fate in Manhattan Criminal Court on June 22. He committed his atrocity on May 18, 2017.
Rojas, a US Navy veteran and native of The Bronx, had pleaded not guilty to second-degree murder, 18 counts of attempted murder and 38 counts assaults.
The jury deliberated for six hours in the case before accepting Rojas’ lawyer, Enrico Demarco’s, argument that his client was so mentally disturbed he didn’t understand what he was doing.
Demarco said that the verdict was ‘right and humane’ but described the incident as a ‘horrible act.’
Judge Daniel Conviser said that Rojas will undergo further psychiatric examinations before he is sentenced to an institution. He could have faced life in prison.
The judge said that Rojas qualifies for an extended ‘involuntary mental commitment.’ A further hearing on the terms of his confinement will be held on June 23.
The several weeks long trial revolved around Rojas’ mental state at the time of the horrific incident.
Avoiding jail time due to mental health issues is extremely rare in the United States. Often, suspects are found to be mentally ill but still forced to undergo a regular criminal trial.
In most cases, a person found not responsible due to mental defect, will be ordered to a facility for the same amount of time as their likely prison sentence.
The several week long trial revolved around Rojas’ mental state at the time of the horrific incident
18-year-old Alyssa Elsman was on vacation in New York City at the time of her death
Rojas’ attorney Enrico Demarco said that the verdict was ‘right and humane’
Alyssa Elsman, 18 (front left) pictured with her family in Times Square. Elsman was killed when Rojas ran her over
In the aftermath of the verdict, Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg said in a statement: ‘Our condolences continue to be with the family, friends and loved ones of Alyssa Elsman, who suffered a terrible and tragic loss, and all of the victims of this horrific incident.’
Elsman was with her family on vacation from Michigan when Rojas committed his actions. Her sister, Ava, suffered serious injuries including a broken pelvis and collapsed lung.
Prosecutor Alfred Peterson said during the trial that it was ‘impossible’ for Rojas not to know what he was doing when he plowed his car into the crowd.
Peterson said, despite this, ‘He didn’t stop.’
In his closing statement to the judge, Peterson said that he accepted Rojas was in the middle of psychotic episode when the crash occurred, but that the video proved he was in control of his actions as he maneuvered his vehicle on the sidewalk.
Peterson added: ‘The defendant made a decision that day,” the prosecutor, Peterson, 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.’
During the trial, Rojas’ brother, Wilmer Varas testified that the killer began developing mental health issues at the age of 11, fifteen years before the attack in Times Square at the age of 26.
Varas said that Rojas would speak in tongues and complained of hearing voices in his head.
A psychiatrist who evaluated Rojas during the investigation said in the trial that the former Navy sailor gave the name ‘James’ to the voice in his head.
Following the attack, Rojas told a traffic cop: ‘You were supposed to shoot me! I wanted to kill them all.’
Another startling testimony in the trial came from Ava Elsman, who told the jury: ‘I just looked up and I saw the car turn and that was the last thing I saw.’
‘I was in and out of consciousness,’ Ava said, according to the New York Post. ‘Someone told me to put my leg down or I would bleed out.’
She suffered broken ribs, a collapsed lung, a fractured pelvis and compound fractures in her leg. She remembered ‘just trying to lay there [and] not die.’
One of Rojas’ victims, Jessica Williams, was cutting school at the time of his rampage. Williams was left ‘basically cut in half’ by his car.
Richard Rojas, 31, learned of his fate on June 22
A breakdown of the Rojas’ attack and his victims from the New York City district attorney’s office. Rojas killed an 18-year-old girl and injured 22 others during the attack
A smashed car sits on the corner of Broadway and 45th Street in New York’s Times Square after an SUV barreled into the crowded area in 2017
Shocking photos show the moment the SUV plowed into pedestrians on the sidewalk in Times Square in 2017, killing an 18-year-old and injuring 22 others
Prosecutors say Rojas drove his car from the Bronx, where he lived with his mother, through Times Square on May 18, 2017, then made a U-turn.
He then steered his car onto a sidewalk, and roared back up the sidewalk for three blocks before he crashed his car into protective barriers.
Photographers snapped pictures of a wild-eyed Rojas after he climbed from the wrecked car and ran through the street waving his arms.
At the time, the U.S. Navy veteran told police after his arrest that he had been smoking marijuana laced with the hallucinogenic drug PCP before the incident, authorities said.
In 2012, he was arrested and accused of beating a cab driver whom he said had disrespected him by trying to charge too much, according to the arrest report. The arresting officer said Rojas screamed, ‘My life is over!’ as he was being detained. After his arrest, Rojas told the officer he was going to kill all police and military police he might see after his release from jail, the Jacksonville sheriff’s office report stated.
Alan Ceballos, an attorney who represented Rojas in that case, said the state charges were dropped after the military stepped in to take jurisdiction over the criminal case.
Navy records show that in 2013 Rojas spent two months at a naval prison in Charleston, South Carolina. He was discharged in 2014 as the result of a special court martial, a Navy official said.
Rojas enlisted in the Navy in 2011 and served for part of 2012 aboard the USS Carney, a destroyer. Rojas spent his final months in the Navy at the Naval Air Station in Jacksonville, Florida.