NEW YORK – After Richard Rojas was kicked out of the Navy, he began to share troubling thoughts running through his mind – that cars were following him, that planes were dusting him with chemicals, that his meals were poisoned.
An uncle, Ramon Reyes, said Rojas offered a self-diagnosis: ‘You know I’m crazy. And they don’t give me the help I need.”
Whether Rojas was right about his mental state is at the center of a trial in New York, where He installed a sidewalk in his car in 2017 and mowed down pedestrians in Times Square.
A teenage Michigan tourist died in the attack in front of her mother. More than 20 other people were injured.
Rojas, 31, is fighting murder, assault and other charges at a trial taking place in the shadow of Mass shootings across the country and the political debate in which opponents of gun control have attempted to blame the violence on failures in mental health services.
Earlier, state judge Daniel Conviser raised the possibility of a paradoxical outcome in the Rojas case: the jury could find Rojas guilty while also ruling that he “lacks responsibility because of a mental illness or defect.” The judge said the finding would qualify him for an indefinite “involuntary spiritual obligation” instead of a lengthy prison sentence.
Prosecutors concede that Rojas had some mental issues and that a motive for the attack is unclear. But they also argue that the defendant lived a largely normal life — served in the military, obtained a real estate license, made friends — and that he doesn’t meet the insanity standard needed to clear him of responsibility. They say he had several opportunities to stop his car on a busy day in Times Square, but he continued to drive recklessly until he crashed.
“It was impossible for him not to know exactly what was happening,” prosecutor Alfred Peterson told the jury.
A criminal prosecution that ended late last month focused mostly on harrowing accounts from victims who survived the slaughter in Times Square. With the trial ending, the defense has in recent days attempted to counter that by examining Rojas’ troubled past in a bid to convince the jury he was too ill to know what he was doing.
Family members, including Reyes, have described the wave of paranoia from the witness stand.
A key defense witness was Ziv Cohen, a faculty psychiatrist at Weill Cornell Medical College and Columbia University, who diagnosed Rojas as schizophrenic. Unlike more common mental disorders, schizophrenia is “a brain disorder, which is a chemical imbalance in the brain” that made Rojas prone to hallucinations, Cohen testified.
During his time in the Navy, Rojas began hearing voices, the doctor said. In particular, he heard about “James” — a “supernatural, godlike figure who had special information,” he testified.
On the day of the shooting, his imaginary guide told Rojas he had to crash his car into “spirits” around him in order to send them to heaven and free Rojas “from the torture he is experiencing as part of his psychosis.” he testified.
“At some point the psychosis gets so bad that he can no longer control his behavior,” he says.
Family members testified to their despair that Rojas disbanded after he was discharged from the Navy in 2014 – the result of a court-martial that stemmed from an arrest for beating a taxi driver.
A brother, Wilmer Veras, took the stand to recall how a delusional Rojas became obsessed with keeping duct tape over his phone and his laptop’s camera lenses in case he was being watched. When out in the world, he would “look for things that weren’t there” and “say people follow him everywhere.” He even accused Veras of “doing voodoo on him.”
At that point, “I told him he really needed help; that he was really losing his nerve,” Veras said.
Uncle Ramon Reyes recounted a phone call a few days before the Times Square crash asking Rojas for help. Reyes told him to come to his house the next day so he could take him to a doctor, but “he never showed up,” he said.
When a relative contacted Reyes and said she saw a TV report of an arrest that included pictures of someone who looked like Rojas, the uncle began frantically calling his nephew, hoping it wasn’t him, he testified. The uncle was asked if Rojas had ever lost weight.
“No,” the witness replied, and then cried.
Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, transcribed or redistributed without permission.
https://www.local10.com/news/national/2022/06/08/testimony-at-times-square-trial-attacker-was-hearing-voices/ Testimony at Times Square trial: Attackers heard voices