The Navy veteran who escaped jail time despite killing a teen tourist and injuring 22 others when he plowed his car through a packed Times Square was greeted by family and friends in court Thursday — where a veteran judge admitted he’s never dealt with a case like this before.
Richard Rojas, 31, returned to Manhattan Supreme Court just a day after a jury bought his insanity defense, deeming him “not responsible” due to mental illness for the May 18, 2017 carnage.
Manhattan Judge Daniel Conviser noted this type of verdict was the first he’d encountered since being appointed to the bench in 2007, and said Rojas would have to undergo a psych evaluation to determine what happens next.
The killer driver was greeted in court by at least five supporters, one man and four women, all of whom waved to him while looking relieved. He acknowledged them by shaking his head, but remained stoned-face.
Following the brief hearing, family friend Rosa Nazar insisted that the jury made the right call.
“He’s been mentally ill since he was a child,” she told The Post outside the courtroom of Rojas. “The Navy discarded him the same way we use toilet paper. They get dirty, we don’t use them, we throw them we throw everything away. So the Navy did the same thing when they realized he was sick instead of giving him the help he needed.”
“This thing didn’t have to happen. Believe me it breaks my heart to see that somebody died. I cried,” she added, referring to 18-year-old Alyssa Elsman, a tourist from Michigan who was visiting the Big Apple with her family when Rojas ran her over and killed her.
Over the course of the trial, which began early last month, prosecutors argued that Rojas had the presence of mind to drive onto the crowded sidewalk and travel three blocks before he crashed.
After he crashed, Rojas told a traffic agent that he “wanted to kill them all,” prosecutors said. He admitted to cops that he had been smoking marijuana laced with PCP before the incident.
The defense maintained Rojas, who was booted from the Navy in 2014, wasn’t in control of his actions when he drove into pedestrians and a psychiatrist testified that he had been diagnosed with schizophrenia before the rampage.
Following the verdict, the dead Michigan teen’s family said they felt betrayed.
“The justice system failed us,” Alyssa’s young sister Ava Elsman told CBS News.
Ava, who was 13 at the time, was injured in the attack, suffering a broken leg, broken ribs and a collapsed lung. She testified during the trial, telling the jury, “I have to live the rest of my life without my sister.”
Thomas Elsman, the girls’ father, said the verdict was “bad,” adding “it wouldn’t have bothered me one bit” if Rojas spent the rest of his days on Riker’s Island.
The rare verdict means Rojas will likely be committed to a mental health facility instead of being locked up behind bars. A report will be presented to the court on his mental condition to determine what kind of facility.
Rojas’ lawyers asked for their psychiatrist to be present at their client’s mental evaluation, the results of which are expected next month.
Defense attorney Glenn Abolafia, said the evaluation will “see how ill he is, whether he’s a danger to himself or others and the level of mental illness that he has.”
Abolafia also asked the judge to seal Rojas’ medical records, saying outside the courtroom that “it’s confidential” and his client has “a right not to have it available to the public.” Conviser will rule on the request at a later date.
The next hearing in the case was set for July 27.