The Toronto van killer is arguing he's not criminally responsible. Photo by Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images
The Toronto man who killed 10 people after driving a van into them in April 2018 is not criminally responsible because he lacked the capacity to judge whether it was right or wrong due to having autism, his defence argued Monday. Alek Minassian, 28, has been charged with 10 counts of first-degree murder and 16 counts of attempted murder after he ran over pedestrians on April 23, 2018. Minassian has pleaded not guilty of all charges, arguing that while he committed the acts, he’s not criminally responsible for them.
In a “not criminally responsible” case, the defence must show, on a balance of probabilities, that the accused had a mental disorder that left them incapable of knowing what they did was wrong. Minassian stated in his police interview the day of the attack that he is an “incel” (involuntary celibate) who killed people because he was on a mission to get retribution after years of being rejected by women. Minassian’s lawyer Boris Bytensky said the defence’s case will focus on Minassian’s autism diagnosis. Bytensky said Minassian is not a psychopath, and doesn’t have a personality disorder. Minassian’s father Veha Minassian testified Monday that his son has never expressed remorse or apologized for his actions. Veha said Minassian has always lacked having emotional responses. He said he’s never seen his son cry. Veha said several comments his son made after the rampage left him “surprised, shocked, and speechless.” He said one day, Minassian asked him “if this incident has had any impact on us.” Veha said before the trial, Minassian said, “I’m looking forward to the trial and everybody will see that I haven’t done anything wrong.” Over time, Veha said these comments led him to believe “he does not understand the devastation and suffering that’s been caused.” He described his son’s conduct in the police interview as being “detached from reality,” as if he was doing a class presentation.
Minassian told police he became angry at a Halloween party when he tried to talk to women and they rejected him. His father said he doesn’t believe that happened. He said it’s “almost an impossibility” for Minassian to be able to go up to women in a social setting. He said at restaurants with women servers, “he wouldn’t be able to place his own order.” He said his son was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder at a young age, and attended a school tailored to his needs. While he excelled in some subjects, like math, he struggled greatly in others and “had great difficulty to establish friendships.” When teaching him to drive, Veha said while Minassian could grasp a rule, such as no speeding in a school zone, he didn’t think about it from the potential victim’s point of view. Veha said on the day of the attack, he was told to go to the police station because there had been an accident involving a rental car and the driver had put down his address. When he stepped outside of the station for air, he said he googled an accident involving a van and saw a video of his son being arrested. "It's the first time that I realized it's my son that's involved in this accident,” he told the court, crying. He said his son had no history of violence and likened the chances of this happening to “being struck by lightning on a sunny day twice.” “He's always been characterized as a gentle person,” Veha said.
Minassian’s lawyer said while Minassian has acknowledged he understood what he did was wrong, he “only understood wrongfulness at the intellectual level” and was not able to apply that knowledge to make a rational decision on whether or not to carry out his attack. He said Minassian “lacks the ability to empathize” and does not have the ability to place himself in the minds of others to understand how his actions affect the world.The defence went over several of Minassian’s old school assignments, including one from a law class where he discussed a case in which someone was acquitted of second-degree murder because he was acting in self-defence.Toronto-based criminal lawyer Daniel Brown told VICE World News he’s never heard of the not criminally responsible defence hinging on autism alone. In general, he said few crimes committed by people with mental disorders will absolve them of criminal liability. “Premeditation is something for the judge to consider but it doesn’t answer the question of whether he was suffering from a significant mental disorder at the time,” said Brown, who is not connected to the case. Brown said even if Minassian is successful in his defence, it’s not a “get out of jail free card.” He said Minassian would be detained in a mental health facility to receive care and would be supervised by the province’s review board indefinitely. Will Baker (previously known as Vince Li) was found not criminally responsible for beheading Tim Mclean on a Greyhound bus in July 2008, due to his schizophrenia. Baker was given an absolute discharge in 2017, meaning he can live in the community without restrictions. Afterwards, Brown said the Criminal Code was amended so that certain offenders found not criminally responsible can be designated “high risk.” Someone who is high risk would only be entitled to a review once every three years. The Sandy Hook elementary school shooter, Adam Lanza, had Asperger’s, which is on the autism spectrum. After that 2012 shooting, which left 28 people dead, including Lanza, the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network said in a statement that people on the autism spectrum are not more likely to be violent than people without disabilities. Follow Manisha Krishnan on Twitter.