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Alek Minassian found criminally responsible for Toronto van attack

A scene following the 2018 Toronto van attack. (Image courtesy of Flicker)

March 3, 2020

By Katia Galati and Talha Hashmani

A judge has found Alek Minassian, the man behind the 2018 Yonge St. Van attack in Toronto, criminally responsible for 10 counts of first-degree murder and 16 counts of second-degree murder.

Via a Youtube live stream, Justice Molloy said that the defence counsel failed to establish Minassian was incapable of understanding the morality of his actions. Minassian had initially pleaded not criminally responsible, with his lawyers painting a defence around his diagnosed autism spectrum disorder.

The defence of not criminally responsible is outlined under section 16 of the criminal code of Canada, stating: No person is criminally responsible for an act committed or an omission made while suffering from a mental disorder that rendered the person incapable of appreciating the nature and quality of the act or omission or of knowing that it was wrong.

In a 68-page verdict outlining her decision, Molloy found that Minassian knew that his actions were morally wrong. She also notes that Minassian planned out the severity of his attack and had rented out the truck three weeks prior. Citing various interviews with forensic psychiatrists, Molloy says that Minassian wanted to gain notoriety for his actions rather than to “rot in obscurity.” 

Moments before Mionassian’s rampage he sent out a Facebook message that cited an “incel rebellion”. The term incel, short for involuntary celibate, was heavily discussed as a possible motive during the trial. This comes from Minassian’s statements to Detective Rob Thomas explicitly stating that he had spoken to Elliot Rodgers and Chris Harper-Mercer, mass killers and self-proclaimed incels.

Molloy also found that Minassian does not suffer from any impairments that can potentially support his defence of not criminally responsible. This is contrary to the testimony given by Dr. Alexander Westphal as he believed that Minassian was incapable of functioning socially and morally rationalizing his actions.

In an interview with Dr. Scott Woodside, Minassian was asked to attribute percentages to his motivations for the attack. He stated that the reasoning behind his attack was based on the following:

  • 35 per cent towards anger at women.
  • 30 per cent towards concerns about screwing up socially or performance-wise at work.
  • 30 per cent towards not wanting to rot in obscurity.
  • 5 per cent towards wanting to do something like this.

During his cross-examination, Westphal noted that he himself could not fully understand the motivations behind Minassian’s actions. The defence argued that Minassian’s autism diagnosis played a role in his actions, but this defence was criticized by many, especially in the autism community.

On Nov. 17, 2020, Autism Ontario filed a media statement actively denouncing claims made by Westphal – specifically, his claim that Minassian’s “autistic way of thinking [being] severely distorted is similar to psychosis.” Part of the organization’s statement included a quote from Dr. Peter Szatmari, a Canadian researcher with the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), which states that “there is no psychosis in ASD and no tendency to anti-social behaviours more than the general population.” This public criticism affected Westphal’s testimony as he refrained from testifying unless the videos of his interviews with Minassian were sealed from the public, to avoid further stigmatization in the community. 

Moments after Justice Malloy’s verdict, Autism Ontario issued another public statement highlighting the stigma the case has placed on the autism community stating that “Autism Ontario is alarmed by the long-term implications of this case”. The organization supports Molloy’s decision of not using Minassian’s autism spectrum disorder as a valid defence. However, the statement reads that the “damage to the autism community has already been done.”

The 2018 van attack left 10 people dead and 16 others injured. 

The names of the individuals killed are:

  • So He Chung (age 22)
  • Geraldine Brady (age 83)
  • Chul Min Kang (age 45)
  • Mary Elizabeth Forsyth (age 94)
  • Muni Abdo Habib Najjar (age 85)
  • Anne Marie D’Amico (age 30)
  • Beutis Renuka Amarasingha (age 45)
  • Dorothy Sewell (age 80)
  • Andrea Bradden (age 33)

The names of the individuals injured:

  • Xiaolong An (age 21)
  • So Ra (age 23)
  • Hyeon Jeong Moon (age 25)
  • Jun Seok Park (age 33)
  • Mavis Justino (age 42)
  • Robert Anderson (age 59)
  • Amir Kiumarsi (age 52)
  • Aleksandra Kozhevinikova (age 90)
  • Catherine Riddel (age 67)
  • Dina Risin (age 80)
  • Yunsheng (Bob) Tian (age 28)
  • Morgan Anthony McDougall (age 26)
  • Samantha Peart (age 23)
  • Samantha Samson (age 35)
  • Beverly Smith (age 81)
  • Amaresh Tesfamariam (age 62)

The court is set to reconvene on March 18 to discuss Minassian’s sentencing.

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