TORONTO — The man who killed 10 people in Toronto’s van attack compartmentalized thoughts of his victims like a pedophile, court heard Monday.
Dr. Scott Woodside, a forensic psychiatrist testifying for the prosecution, said Alek Minassian was able to push out thoughts of his victims like a sexual predator pushing out the harms he would cause to a child.
Woodside said that ability, coupled with his strong desire to commit the attack, helped Minassian go through with his plan on April 23, 2018, when he killed 10 random people.
Under cross-examination from Minassian’s lawyer, Boris Bytensky, Woodside maintained the 28-year-old from Richmond Hill, Ont., with autism spectrum disorder knew what he did was morally wrong.
“In this case, his decision was not about reasoning, this was something he very much wanted to do, whether right or wrong,” Woodside said.
Minassian has pleaded not guilty to 10 counts of first-degree murder and 16 counts of attempted murder.
The defence argues Minassian should be held not criminally responsible for his actions due to autism spectrum disorder.
Minassian’s state of mind is the sole issue at trial since he has admitted to planning and carrying out the attack.
The central question in the case is whether he knew what he did was morally wrong.
The defence argues Minassian did not, due to a deficit in empathy and an inability to understand the damage the attack wrought, which stems from his autism spectrum disorder.
Woodside, a forensic psychiatrist at Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, compared Minassian’s compartmentalization to sex offenders he’s assessed.
The sex offenders had a strong desire to have sex with children, but knew that would harm the victims, he said.
“They work quite actively to put those thoughts out of their heads,” Woodside said.
“They remain aware of what they’re doing is likely to have a negative impact on others.”
Woodside said Minassian told him that he put those thoughts aside, as well as thoughts that his parents would be “disappointed” in him, in order to commit the attack.
“He said he just felt blank, he noticed he was focused on trying to not crash the car,” Woodside said.
Court has heard that Minassian planned a different location for his attack, but changed his mind when he saw “enough” people at the corner of Yonge Street and Finch Avenue.
Justice Anne Molloy placed an immediate publication ban on the location of Minassian’s planned attack, which was described in court.
He had long researched that target and “thought it would give him the greatest likelihood of highest number of victims present,” Bytensky said.
There were five people standing at Yonge and Finch, Minassian noticed, including “one young man and one young woman in her early 20s,” Bytensky said.
Minassian was not in the curbside lane, but when the light turned green, he floored it and drove into the sidewalk.
“I remember I immediately got on the sidewalk and I hear a thud when I hit the initial batch of people,” Minassian said, according to Woodside’s report.
“Until that point, he recognized there was still an opportunity not to do this, it wasn’t set in stone, and after he hits them, it is an actuality, he’s not going back at that point.”
Bytensky said that split-second decision to change his plan is crucial to his client’s state of mind at the time.
“In that moment, because of his autism spectrum disorder, he is not able to take the perspective of the people he saw and knew he was about to kill, isn’t that true?” Bytensky asked.
“I don’t agree with that,” Woodside said. “I don’t think there’s much qualitatively different, he’s already committed to the attack, he had an opportunity to think about his victims and it wasn’t driven by his concern for others, this was primarily an egocentric act.”
Bytensky noted that Woodside had little expertise with people who are similar to Minassian, those with autism spectrum disorder with a high intellect.
Woodside said Minassian’s ultimate motivation for the attack was notoriety, which he said demonstrates the young man knew the attack would be viewed by the public as a despicable act.
He has said Minassian was focused on kill counts and wanted a “high score” and had hoped for 100 deaths, but was satisfied with 10.
Woodside is the final witness in the trial, which is taking place by video conference due to the pandemic. Molloy is presiding over the virtual court without a jury.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 14, 2020.
Liam Casey, The Canadian Press