Accused in Toronto van strike does have social abilities, Crown argues

Far from the “baffled” and child-like characterization provided by a forensic psychiatrist and key defence witness, Alek Minassian is in fact capable of holding sophisticated and even philosophical conversations, the prosecution argued at the 28-year-old’s trial Thursday.

“This is very esoteric,” Superior Court Justice Anne Molloy said of a video clip played by the Crown as part of its cross-examination at the trial Thursday, in which Mr. Minassian describes a newfound interest in the Bible to Yale University professor Alexander Westphal. “It’s philosophical, almost – well, not almost. It is,” the judge said.

Thursday marked Dr. Westphal’s fourth day of testimony at the judge-alone trial of Mr. Minassian, who is charged with 10 counts of first-degree murder and 16 counts of attempted murder in connection with the April 23, 2018, van attack.

Mr. Minassian admits to planning and carrying out the mass killing, which involved using a rented van to run down hordes of pedestrians on Toronto’s busy Yonge Street. But his defence team argues that his autism spectrum disorder made him unable to rationally understand that what he was doing was wrong, and that he should be found not criminally responsible – or NCR – as a result.

Traditionally, court has heard, the NCR defence has been reserved for people with psychosis.

Dr. Westphal, whose expertise is in autism spectrum disorder, has testified that he believes Mr. Minassian’s autism affected his ability to appreciate the “moral wrongfulness” of his actions, but he declined to say explicitly whether he believes he should be found NCR, arguing that is a legal question, not a psychiatric one.

During a second day of cross-examination Thursday, Crown attorney Joseph Callaghan questioned the conclusions drawn by Dr. Westphal, who has testified that Mr. Minassian’s social abilities were “severely, severely disabled.”

In his final report, Dr. Westphal describes Mr. Minassian’s thought process as “very concrete and inflexible,” and said he would “at times … appear baffled” or totally miss the mark with his responses to questions. He also found that while Mr. Minassian had an above-average IQ, his communication and social skills are at the level of a child’s.

The fact that Mr. Minassian graduated high school and college, Mr. Callaghan argued, show some measure of social achievement.

Dr. Westphal stressed the distinction between academic or intellectual capabilities and social skills.

“I’m not saying people with autism can’t make it through university, many do,” Dr. Westphal said. “But the social element … is very difficult. I think he found it very difficult.”

Mr. Callaghan also pointed to a series of video clips from the doctor’s interview with Mr. Minassian in which their conversation appears to be flowing, not stilted.

In one, Mr. Minassian – wearing an orange shirt, sitting at a table at the Toronto South Detention Centre – describes the interest he has taken in the Bible since getting arrested. He explains that, since jail is an “obviously inconvenient and uncomfortable place to be,” the Bible helps him to keep positive – ”to give myself a sort of sense of hope.”

When asked whether he is religious, he responds that he was raised atheist but says it is possible to get in a “mood” to believe it’s real. He said he memorizes verses to recite to his mother when she visits.

Asked about the message of the Bible, he says, “hope … for the future … that things will get better … even if your situation is hopeless, you might be surprised.”

At one point, Dr. Westphal asked Mr. Minassian whether he has hope for redemption. Mr. Minassian said that he knows he’s looking at 10 life sentences in prison. Dr. Westphal clarified that he meant spiritual, not legal, redemption.

“I mean to be honest, I know what I did … realistically would be considered probably extremely irredeemable,” Mr. Minassian replied, specifying that he believes it is “99 per cent” irredeemable. “But nevertheless I’m still reading the Bible every day.”

The exchange demonstrated “perspective taking,” Mr. Callaghan argued.

But Dr. Westphal insisted it did not. He approached this subject looking for “some sort of empathic response,” he explained. “[Mr. Minassian] has been incredibly focused on the Bible … and I was anticipating that if he had any empathy or remorse in this situation, that it would somehow play out in this conversation. And I didn’t see anything that demonstrated any sort of remorse.”

Mr. Callaghan’s cross-examination of Dr. Westphal will continue Friday.

This article first published here www.theglobeandmail.com/canada/toronto/article-accused-in-toronto-van-attack-does-have-social-skills-crown-argues/