Warning: Details of the trial are graphic in nature, discretion is advised
The Toronto van attack trial is on hold until later this week to give doctors for the defence and prosecution time to watch a new video of Alek Minassian being assessed by a psychiatrist from Yale University. But, experts say a doctor trying to determine someone’s mental state by speaking to them months after they’ve killed faces a difficult task.
“Psychiatrists have the very difficult task of trying to assess the ins and outs of a person’s psyche,” says University of Toronto sociologist Jooyoung Lee.
“One of the biggest limits of psychiatry in general is that it’s this completely contrived interaction with a person,” Lee notes. “It’s you and them, you’re asking them a series of questions and studying their reactions to prompts and different things.”
The trial was set to continue Monday with the defence calling forensic psychiatrist Dr. John Bradford, who was expected to provide his evaluation of Alek Minassian. However, the judge has given the Crown and its experts a few days to review a defence-hired psychiatrist’s interviews with Minassian.
Minassian has pleaded not guilty to 10 counts of first-degree murder and 16 counts of attempted murder in connection with the attack on April 23, 2018. However, his defence team argues he should be found not criminally responsible for his actions due to autism spectrum disorder.
Dr. Alexander Westphal, the psychiatrist hired by the defence, taped his assessment of Minassian and the Crown learned about the recording just recently.
Dr. Westphal had refused to testify at the trial if the recordings were made public. Part of his reasoning is that the video could motivate someone else to carry out a similar attack in the future.
In response to the doctor’s view, Justice Anne Molloy said it felt like a “ransom demand” but also noted she must ensure that Minassian has the right to a fair trial. As a result, the video will be sealed and not made public when he appears.
The defence will call Dr. Bradford to the stand on Thursday morning.
CityNews reporter Adrian Ghobrial is covering the trial, follow his tweets below:
Minassian has admitted to planning and carrying out the attack and his state of mind at the time is the sole issue at trial.
Another psychiatrist has testified that Minassian’s autism spectrum disorder left him fixated on mass killings and vulnerable to the ramblings of an American mass murderer.
Dr. Rebecca Chauhan assessed Minassian over three days in September 2018. She testified on Wednesday that his autism spectrum disorder left him struggling to understand emotions and vulnerable to the online writings of mass killer Elliot Rodger, who killed six people in a 2014 attack near the campus of the University of California.
She testified Thursday that Minassian told her he read Rodger’s manifesto almost daily between January and April, 2018.
After assessing him, she wrote in her report that Minassian started reading about mass murders and became interested in the subject in high school. “He would fanaticize about shooting people every three to four months,” she wrote.
Dr. Chauhan was brought on by Dr. Bradford because he wanted a second opinion on Minassian’s autism diagnosis.
On the stand she admitted it would have been beneficial to witness Minassian interacting with others at the hospital during her assessment. However, his charges meant that the examination was confined to an empty room with just the two of them.
Lee explains: “there’s this huge missing component in your understanding of a person because you’re not there with them on the ground, as they react to things that happen in their lives.”
The defence case rests on the argument that his autism spectrum disorder meant he couldn’t fully understand the consequences of his actions during the attack.
Dr. Chauhan didn’t sit down with Minassian until five months after the attack – a second doctor who will testify later this week didn’t asses him until 4 months after the incident. Its that time lapse that can create difficulties when building a case according to veteran defence lawyer Kim Schofield.
“You really have to time travel on a mental health assessment because someone could be not criminally responsible on one day but they may be potentially criminally responsible on another day, and so its really difficult to asses that,” she says.
The court has heard that Minassian has told various doctors his motivation for the attacks ranged from notoriety to revenge against society for years of rejection by women to anxiety over starting a new job.
“As much as we hear from doctors its not a medical assessment its a legal assessment,” she notes. “And that’s why you have to not only look at expert opinions but the facts surrounding the commission of the offence.”