Accused in Toronto van strike test had sense of ethical wrong, court hears

Although his fixation with mass murderers began years before he used a rental van to kill 10 people and hurt 16 others, Alek Minassian was self-aware enough to keep it to himself, a court heard at his trial on Friday.

In a transcript presented in court, Mr. Minassian discusses his interest with a psychiatrist. “I was always worried that the amount of people I tell, that that would cause alarm and they’re going to tell someone about it, or they might…chastise me or get upset with me or something,” he said.

“There was never anyone that I felt would…agree with the mass killing stuff.”

Mr. Minassian, 28, admits he used a van as a weapon to run down pedestrians on Toronto’s busy Yonge Street on April 23, 2018 — and that he planned the mass killing in advance. His defence team says 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.

Forensic psychiatrist Alexander Westphal, who specializes in autism spectrum disorder, has testified that Mr. Minassian, while bright, had “severely, severely disabled” social abilities and an impaired sense of moral reasoning.

In a third day of cross-examination, Crown attorney Joseph Callaghan questioned the findings of the Yale University professor’s report to the court, suggesting he purposely left out “powerful” details about Mr. Minassian because they did not fit the “narrative” he was presenting.

Mr. Callaghan cited Facebook and text messages that have previously been presented as evidence in which Mr. Minassian and a few school friends talk about video games and job prospects, even occasionally discussing plans to meet up. What never comes up in these conversations, Mr. Callaghan points out, is Mr. Minassian’s interest in mass killers — which court has heard he read about routinely in online forums.

Within those forums, Mr. Callaghan pointed out, a transcript excerpt presented to the court shows that Mr. Minassian said he mostly just read the content, and would post something maybe once a year.

“Let’s say the police are monitoring my internet usage and if they see me talking to someone excessively about this then it might raise some red flags and they might search the house or something. It might cause problems,” Mr. Minassian said in the transcript. “But let’s say I was guaranteed privacy and I was guaranteed that a person wasn’t an undercover cop, then I may have attempted to maybe even try to plan with them.”

Outside those online “fringe groups,” Mr. Minassian acknowledged in the interview that he knew his actions in the van attack would likely be unanimously seen as “unjustifiable.”

Mr. Callaghan said those comments demonstrate his understanding of the wrongfulness of his actions. Dr. Westphal responded that he believes he understood it only as a “rule violation,” and not in a moral context.

“If there’s another explanation for it, [such as] fury, or wounded ego, or that he’s a psychopath…then I would believe that he understood what he was doing,” Dr. Westphal said. “But the complete absence of a coherent explanation, to me, says one thing and one thing only: He didn’t understand what he was actually doing to other people.”

Notes from an interview between Mr. Minassian’s older brother and a social worker were also presented in court on Friday.

“We’ve always gotten along,” the older brother said, noting that they would often go bowling or out for sushi.

Mr. Minassian, his older brother said, “was not a social butterfly by any means but he seemed to get along with those friends [that he did have] well.”

Mr. Callaghan said this too illustrates a healthy social life.

Dr. Westphal disagreed: “That his brother doesn’t know [about the loneliness Mr. Minassian described feeling] is telling about the depth of conversations they had.”

Dr. Westphal’s cross-examination will continue on Monday. Mr. Minassian faces 10 charges of first-degree murder and 16 of attempted murder.

This article first published here www.theglobeandmail.com/canada/toronto/article-accused-in-toronto-van-attack-trial-had-sense-of-moral-wrong-court/