Driver who killed Michigan girl in Times Square attack cleared of responsibility due to mental illness

Times Square
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NEW YORK (WWJ) – A man who drove his car through crowds of people in New York City’s Times Square back in 2017, killing a Michigan teenager and injuring more than 20 others, has been cleared of responsibility in the attack, due to mental illness.

A New York City jury on Wednesday accepted an insanity defense claiming Richard Rojas was so psychologically disturbed that he didn’t know what he was doing, according to the Associated Press.

Rojas had been charged with the murder of 18-year-old Alyssa Elsman, a Portage Central High School graduate, and the attempted murder of more than 20 others in the May 18, 2017 incident, according to the New York Times.

Elsman was visiting the popular tourist destination in Manhattan on vacation with her family when Rojas drove a maroon Honda onto a curb on 42nd Street and sped north three blocks on Seventh Avenue, before slamming into a bollard.

Elsman’s younger sister, Ava, was severely injured in the attack. She suffered a broken pelvis and collapsed lung.

Their father, Thomas Elsman, was in the New York courtroom on Wednesday.

"He knew exactly what the hell he was doing, end of story," Elsman told WWMT in Kalamazoo after Wednesday’s verdict was read.

Jyll Elsman, the mother of Alyssa, “reacted with dismay in a social media message,” according to the AP.

“Really the only thing I have to say is if this had happened to any of the juror's children — would they still have said ‘not responsible’?” she wrote.

The jury had been instructed that if it found prosecutors had proven elements of murder and assault charges, it also had to decide whether or not Rojas “lacked responsibility by reason of mental disease or defect.”

The judge said the finding would qualify Rojas for an open-ended “involuntary mental commitment” instead of a lengthy prison term, according to the AP. He ordered Rojas to be held in jail while he drafts an examination order, and said there would be a hearing on the matter Thursday.

Rojas, 31, who was impassive throughout the trial, had no visible reaction to a verdict reached after less than two days of deliberations, the AP reported.