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Crown says key defence witness in van attack trial omitted evidence

Last Updated Dec 3, 2020 at 6:48 pm EST

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


The Crown continued its searing cross-examination of defence witness, Dr. Alexander Westphal, in the Toronto van attack trial on Thursday, accusing him of omitting evidence from his assessment of Alek Minassian to better fit a not criminally responsible (NCR) “narrative.”

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, but his defence team argues he should be found NCR due to autism spectrum disorder (ASD) — a defence that has never succeeded in a Canadian court.

On Thursday, Crown attorney Joseph Callaghan played audio from Westphal’s assessment with Minassian. At one point Minassian says: “I didn’t feel that I had to do it.”

However, Westphal’s summary notes presented to the court did not include that statement. Instead, Westphal submitted a quote from Minassian saying that once he rented the van, he felt like he “had to go through with it.”

“I’m suggesting you didn’t include this in your notes,” Callaghan said. “You only included facts that fit your narrative.”

“The only reason we know that he (Minassian) said this, is your Honour ordered release of your video interviews.”

Westphal, who appeared flustered and confused at times by the line of questioning, said he left it out only because he didn’t feel “compulsion” was “an important ingredient to Mr. Minassian’s actions.”

“His strong desire to do this was an important ingredient, but I don’t think it rose to the level of a compulsion,” he said.

After a recess due to a technical issue, court resumed with Westphal and Callaghan sparring over Minassian’s intelligence.

“You believe Mr. Minassian is above average at retaining information?” Callaghan asked.

“I think he has a good intellectual ability to retain information,” Westphal replied.

When asked is he believed Minassian was highly-intelligent, Westphal said: “I think he’s intelligent, I think he’s above average, I don’t think he’s highly-intelligent.”

“Given his intelligence and ability to obtain information you agree he’s a good learner?”

“He is massively impaired in social development,” Westphal stressed.

Callghan then shifted to a question with more direct legal ramifications for the case.

“I’m going to suggest that (the) intellectual ability Mr. Minassian displayed gave him the ability to work through moral decisions?”

“I agree,” Westphal replied. “But that’s different than moral empathy. To reason morally you need to understand moral decisions by feeling them.”

Westphal’s assessment notes delved deeper into Minassian’s intellectual status.

“In Mr. Minassian’s case, he can function at or above normal level in many intellectual tasks. At the same time, his communication in everyday settings is more like that of a child, and his skills in social relationships are even lower.”

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

 

It’s the fourth straight day that Westphal has been on the stand. The Yale psychiatry professor’s main argument supporting a NCR verdict appears to be that although Minassian was not psychotic, his ASD distorted his thinking and made it difficult for him to understand his actions “from a moral standpoint.”

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

“Overall, it was our impression that despite the fact that he was not psychotic, his autistic way of thinking was severely distorted in a way similar to psychosis,” Westphal summarized in his court-submitted notes after assessing Minassian.

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

No ’emotional attachment’ to attack

 

During his testimony earlier this week, 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.”

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