Defence witness describes Toronto van strike offender’s lack of regret, social difficulties

An American psychiatrist described as the key defence witness for Alek Minassian testified at the van attack trial Monday, recalling the “striking” lack of remorse that the Richmond Hill man showed for a mass killing that left 10 people dead and 16 others seriously injured.

Mr. Minassian has autism spectrum disorder, which his defence team argues made him unable to rationally understand that what he was doing was wrong when he used a rented van to run down hordes of pedestrians on Toronto’s busy Yonge Street on April 23, 2018. As a result, they say he should be found not criminally responsible for the attack. Dr. Alexander Westphal, the court has heard, is expected to support that claim.

On the first day of his testimony, the Yale University professor, who specializes in autism spectrum disorder, described the litany of psychiatric tests and evaluations that Mr. Minassian underwent after his arrest. Dr. Westphal painted a portrait of an intelligent man with significant social impairments.

For example, while Mr. Minassian scored “normally” on an IQ test, he received a score equivalent to that of a young child when it came to socialization skills.

These social challenges, court heard, began when Mr. Minassian was a small child. He struggled with eye contact and communication and would bang his head against the wall, Dr. Westphal said. In high school and throughout college, he was so uncomfortable around women that he had difficulty ordering from female waitresses at restaurants. The closest he came to a romantic relationship, Dr. Westphal said, was when a woman gave him her phone number after he asked for it. But when he texted her, she did not respond.

Defence lawyer Boris Bytensky asked Dr. Westphal about testing done around his client’s capacity for empathy, which has been a key issue at the trial so far.

Psychiatrists use the Empathy Quotient, a 60-item questionnaire developed at the Autism Research Centre at the University of Cambridge, to measure empathy in adults. A normal score, Dr. Westphal explained, would be 30 or higher. Mr. Minassian scored 22.

Court has previously heard about Mr. Minassian’s response when his older brother had a medical emergency and needed to go to the hospital. Mr. Minassian was in the middle of a video game at the time, Dr. Westphal said, and showed no concern for his brother.

“It’s not that he doesn’t love his brother … it’s just that he didn’t empathize with his brother in that context,” Dr. Westphal said, explaining that there is a difference between cognitive and emotional empathy.

Dr. Westphal also spoke about testing Mr. Minassian for psychopathy (which court has previously heard he does not have). Though he scored “well below the cutoff” for such a diagnosis, Dr. Westphal said Mr. Minassian did exhibit certain traits that would be consistent with psychopathy, but are attributable to his autism spectrum disorder.

Dr. Westphal said he “cannot begin to describe” how struck he was by Mr. Minassian’s lack of remorse. He also scored high in areas including pathological lying (because he gave differing explanations for his motivation) and grandiosity (because one of those stated motivations was notoriety) – but Dr. Westphal acknowledged it’s more complicated than a simple score.

At the same time, Dr. Westphal reiterated that Mr. Minassian had no history of violence before the mass killing and never showed aggression toward other people.

Dr. Westphal’s testimony provided a more detailed picture of Mr. Minassian’s life and the ways that he has been affected by his autism.

He was diagnosed at age 5 with pervasive developmental disorder, which is now considered autism spectrum disorder.

While court has previously heard that the 28-year-old had graduated from college and was about to start a $70,000-a-year computer programming job, Dr. Westphal said that it took him seven years to finish college.

Dr. Westphal had previously threatened to refuse to testify in this trial if the video footage of his interviews with Mr. Minassian were shown in court, which is being held virtually as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. He cited a fear that they could be surreptitiously recorded and published, inciting violence and inflicting stigma on people with autism.

Justice Anne Molloy likened Dr. Westphal’s ultimatum to having a gun held to her head and refused to play the video footage in camera. She conceded to sealing the clips as evidence, however, because she said Dr. Westphal’s testimony will be crucial to Mr. Minassian’s defence. Without it, she said, “we may as well go directly to sentencing.”

Dr. Westphal’s testimony will resume Tuesday.

This article first published here