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Crown accuses key defence witness of 'hand-picking' evidence in van attack trial

Last Updated Dec 2, 2020 at 6:05 pm EST

Warning: Details of the trial are graphic in nature, discretion is advised

The Toronto van attack trial saw some tense moments on Wednesday as the Crown accused key defence witness, Yale psychiatry professor Dr. Alexander Westphal, of “hand-picking” evidence to aid the argument that Alek Minassian should be found not criminally responsible for his actions.

Minassian has pleaded not guilty to 10 counts of first-degree murder and 16 of attempted murder.

He admitted to planning and carrying out the attack with a rental van on April 23, 2018. His state of mind at the time is sole issue at the virtual trial.

Minassian’s defence team argues he should be found not criminally responsible (NCR) on account of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) – a defence that has never succeeded in a Canadian court.

Westphal assessed Minassian after the attack, and testified over nearly three days that he doesn’t believe Minassian understands “the horrific impact of his actions.”

In the summary of his assessment report, Westphal wrote: “We conclude that although Alek Minassian understood the wrongfulness of his actions from an intellectual standpoint, he did not understand from a moral standpoint.”

But the Crown tried to poke holes in that argument on Wednesday, claiming that Westphal didn’t give a full account of Minassian’s statements during his testimony.

“I’m going to challenge that your report doesn’t accurately capture what Mr. Minassian said,” Crown attorney Joseph Callaghan said during his cross examination. “I’m going to show that your report shows you hand picked certain aspects of your assessment…”

Most notably, Callaghan questioned why Westphal didn’t tell the court that Minassian said his family would be “devastated” by what he’d done.

“Why didn’t you include in your report that Minassian thought his family would be ‘devastated?’ ” Callaghan shouted.

Westphal said the “devastated” statement was one of a number of statements he didn’t believe were genuine, and said it was something Minassian picked up along the way.

“How do you know that?” the Crown asked.

“I don’t,” he responded. “That’s my theory.”

“Anger doesn’t explain this.”

Earlier Wednesday Westphal argued that none of the apparent motives in the case make sense.

Suggested motives include that Minassian was radicalized online by the Incel (involuntary celibate) movement and influenced by other mass killers like Elliot Rodger, or that he was overwhelmed with anxiety about a new job he was set to start.

Rodger killed six people and injured 14 during a 2014 shooting and stabbing rampage near the campus of the University of California. He later died by suicide.

“Mr. Minassian was obsessed with Elliot Rodger … and that’s related to his autism,” Westphal said.

“The thing that unites all of these explanations is that none of these actually explain why he did this? He hated women, or he was so lonely, none of these provide a satisfactory account. That leads me to believe he didn’t understand the horrific impact of his actions.”

“I’m sure he was lonely, isolated, and angry, we all experience it. If Mr. Minassian had been building this type of anger his whole life we would have seen it earlier. Anger doesn’t explain this.”

Most successful NCR defences involve someone suffering from psychosis — most often individuals diagnosed with schizophrenia.

Westphal argued Wednesday that ASD can be similar to psychosis in how it alters a person’s ability to perceive the world.

“When it comes down to it, both conditions can dramatically alter the way in which the world is perceived … and that’s what it boils down to for me, they both alter the way a person sees the world dramatically.”

When asked directly if Minassian had the moral capacity to decide between right and wrong on April 23, 2018, Westphal replied: “No, in this circumstance absolutely not.”


CityNews reporter Adrian Ghobrial is covering the trial, follow his tweets below:

On Tuesday, Westphal said Minassian “doesn’t have any emotional connection,” to the van attack.

“He describes (the killings) completely flat, devoid of any emotional context whatsoever. (He explains it) like if you or I were to (discuss) going shopping.”

“A clinical cold description.”

Westphal added Tuesday that Minassian’s response to the killings have “the disassociated flavor of someone playing a video game. It’s as abstract as killing people in a video game … he still doesn’t have any emotional connection with what he did.”

With files from Adrian Ghobrial