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Will autism defence work at Toronto van attack trial?

Last Updated Dec 28, 2020 at 6:18 pm EDT

Summary

Should the man behind the wheel in the Toronto van attack be found not criminally responsible because of his autism?


Minassian's month-long trial concluded with closing arguments from both the Crown and Defence in December


Anne Molloy will be delivering her written decision on March 3, 2021


Warning: some may find the details in this story disturbing

It’s one of the most polarizing and controversial criminal trials in recent Canadian history. Should the man behind the wheel in the Toronto van attack be found not criminally responsible because of his autism spectrum disorder?

Just before the holidays, Alek Minassian’s month-long trial concluded with closing arguments from both the Crown and the Defence. Will he spend the rest of his life in jail – or be sent to a psychiatric hospital? The decision could affect criminal cases in courtrooms across the country for decades to come. 

Minassian has confessed that he intended to kill each and every person he struck with a rental van on April 23, 2018. He’s told multiple doctors he would have killed more if the windshield on the van hadn’t become covered in liquid. He is seeking to be found not criminally responsible for ten counts of first-degree murder and 16 counts of attempted murder–arguing that his specific autism diagnosis rendered him unable to know his actions were morally wrong.

Autism alone has never resulted in a not-criminally-responsible (NCR) verdict – and we’re now awaiting Justice Anne Molloy’s verdict at the judge-only trial.

Section 16 of the criminal code reads that “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.”

Minassian told psychiatrists after the attack “most people are going to think that mass murder is senseless and most won’t understand the perspective I have…”

Crown prosecutor Joseph Callaghan told the court: “In this case, Mr. Minassian never lost sight of the wrongfulness of his actions. He always knew from society’s perspective his choice to kill was wrong.”

In a police video, Minassian is asked: “If the families of those people who were murdered and were injured [were] in this room right now what would you say to them?” 

Minassian replied: “I honestly don’t know what I would say.” 

The defence asked their key expert witness Dr. Alexander Westphal, a psychiatrist from Yale University, in his opinion, did “Mr. Minassian have the moral capacity to decide between right and wrong on April 23, 2018.”

Dr. Westphal replied, “No, in this circumstance, absolutely not.”

From his multiple interviews with Minassian, Westphal added that while Minassian can explain on an intellectual level what he did was wrong, he just doesn’t understand it at an emotional level.

The question that remains is, does this reach the threshold of a not criminally responsible verdict?

Veteran criminal defence lawyer Kim Schofield has been listening to the arguments and testimony closely and has her own thoughts on what Justice Anne Molloy may ultimately decide.

“It’s a difficult task, and it’s very nuanced because you understand on an intellectual level that others would consider this morally wrong because you don’t actually get it to be morally wrong, does that involve a Section 16 finding?” she says. “That’s really the question and that’s and I think the answer is going to come down to: ‘no.’ “

“But the question really isn’t, ‘why doesn’t it fall in Section 16?’ ” Schofield adds. “The question has to be ‘how can it fall into Section 16?’ “

In her final remarks, Justice Molloy told everyone listening in the virtual trial — “autism is not on trial here. Alek Minassian is on trial.”

She will be delivering her written decision on March 3, 2021.