On May 18, 2017, citizens were terrified as images from Times Square in Manhattan showed a vehicle deliberately running over pedestrians. After various terrorist attacks in Nice and London, everyone immediately was on edge, wondering if this was the latest culmination of ISIS-led attacks on the West. Shockingly, however, the man behind the attack was Richard Rojas, age 26 – a former US Navy member with a troubled past. Rojas struck an 18-year-old woman who died, and injured 18 others – some critically. As of the date of the issuance of Mr. Rojas’s indictment, one victim remained hospitalized.
Rojas was indicted by the Manhattan DA on July 13, 2017. The indictment asserts that Mr. Rojas was driving a Honda accord, when he made a U-Turn at a high rate of speed, and intentionally drove his vehicle on the sidewalk from 42nd to 45th street, hitting dozens of pedestrians. He stopped when his car crashed into a metal pillar. He’s been charged with 2 counts of murder, 18 counts of attempted murder, 20 counts of assault in the first degree and 18 counts of assault in the second degree.
No doubt his defense team will amount an argument largely based on insanity. Reports have come out that Rojas told police he was ‘hearing voices’ while he rampaged the victims. After he crashed into the barrier, he ran out of his car, shouting and jumping before he was eventually tackled by police. While the alcohol test came back negative, investigators reportedly believe he was under the influence of some other kind of substance. His past will likely play a role, to the extent the judge will allow it to: Rojas was discharged from the US Navy as a result of disciplinary issues in 2014. He lost his license in 2015 after 2 charges of driving while intoxicated, and just the week before the attack, he was arrested for threatening a notary with a knife, accusing her of stealing his identity. During his previous arrests, Rojas also told the police that he believed he was being stalked and harassed. Witnesses also report that he told police they were supposed to shoot him, indicating that he wanted to die.
While it’s clear that Rojas was a troubled individual with mental illness, lodging a successful insanity defense in New York state is difficult. The standard is that the insanity must have prevented the defendant from realizing what he is doing, or at least understanding the wrongfulness of the consequences of his actions on the day it occurred. The standard is incredibly difficult to meet – of 5,910 murder cases that went to trial in the last decade, only seven have been found not responsible by reason of mental disease or defect. Trials where this defense is raised can be lengthy and expensive as psychological experts have to be consulted, and there will typically be dueling experts to sway the jury. Even if the defense can put forth a reasonable defense, jurors often buy into the prosecution’s argument that the insanity defense is not authentic, fearful of the fact that they could be releasing someone dangerous into the world. Of course, even if the defense is successful, defendants will not be released. Rather, they are sent to secure psychiatric institutions under state control until they are deemed no longer mentally ill, with many often spending more time in these facilities than they would have in a prison under a traditional guilty plea.
Rojas faces a hefty sentence with the murder and attempted murder charges. Accepting a plea might be the best option, but given the political implications and great public interest, it remains to be seen if the prosecution will make such an offer. Regardless, this case remains one to watch.