Defendant’s degree of psychosis argued at Times Square trial

June 15, 2022 Tom Hays, Associated Press
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A man accused of using his car to mow down people in Times Square made a deliberate choice to leave a path of death and destruction there in the spring of 2017, a prosecutor said Wednesday in closing arguments at a New York City trial that’s put an insanity defense to the test.

An attorney for Richard Rojas countered by calling his client a “lunatic” who was so mentally ill, it was impossible for him to know what he was doing that day.

Rojas, 31, is fighting murder, assault and other charges in an attack that killed a teen girl from Michigan, injured more than 20 other people and spread panic at the popular tourist destination. If a jury finds him guilty, it must also decide whether or not he “lacked responsibility by reason of mental disease or defect.”

The trial, which began in state court in Manhattan early last month, has featured testimony from victims who suffered grisly injuries from what prosecutors labeled “a horrific, depraved act.” On the defense side, family members testified how Rojas’ mental health took a steep dive after he was kicked out of the Navy in 2014.

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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,” he added.

Defense Attorney Enrico DeMarco told jurors that “there should be no doubt” that his client met the legal standard for an insanity finding. The evidence, the lawyer 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, and be seen banging his head on the ground.

Rojas “was a lunatic,” the attorney said. “He lost his mind.”

DeMarco challenged police accounts Rojas told a traffic agent in the aftermath, “I wanted to kill them all. Just kill me too,” calling it a fabrication meant to give some semblance of a motive to a senseless act.

There will be a break in the trial until Tuesday, when deliberations are expected to begin.

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