Defence lawyer Boris Bytensky, clockwise from top left, Justice Anne Malloy, the court clerk, Crown attorney Joseph Callaghan, the scene of Yonge street attack and defendant Alek Minassian are shown during a murder trial conducted via Zoom videoconference, in this courtroom sketch on Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Alexandra Newbould

Alek Minassian’s ‘autistic way of thinking’ similar to psychosis, murder trial hears

Alek Minassian’s ‘autistic way of thinking’ similar to psychosis, murder trial hears

TORONTO — A psychiatrist hired by defence lawyers for the man behind Toronto’s 2018 van attack found Alek Minassian had an “autistic way of thinking” that was severely distorted, a court heard Thursday.

In the first glimpse of evidence Minassian’s lawyers may present at his murder trial, court heard that a doctor who interviewed the 28-year-old found he was not psychotic but had a thought process similar to psychosis.

Minassian has admitted in court to planning and carrying out the April 23, 2018 attack in which he drove a van down a busy Toronto sidewalk, killing 10 people and injuring 16 others.

He pleaded not guilty to 10 counts of first-degree murder and 16 counts of attempted murder, and has asked to be found not criminally responsible for his actions.

His defence team has yet to lay out what mental disorder Minassian had at the time that could have impacted his actions to the extent that he didn’t understand what he was doing was wrong.

But a report prepared by a psychiatrist provided insight into some of the evidence Minassian’s defence might raise.

“Overall it was our impression that despite the fact he was not psychotic, his autistic way of thinking was severely distorted similar to psychosis,” the report read.

“Mr Minassian answered questions in a very concrete way often requiring the interviewer to rephrase questions several times in order for him to answer.”

The report said Minassian “would appear to be baffled” by some questions and either didn’t answer questions or his answers “were off the mark with extraneous details or missing the point.”

Crown lawyer Joe Callaghan is seeking access to the full video and audio of that psychiatrist’s interview with Minassian, as well as those conducted by other doctors.

The trial previously heard that in a lengthy police interview, Minassian told a detective the attack was retribution against society because he was a lonely virgin who believed women wouldn’t have sex with him.

Because Minassian has raised a not criminally responsible defence, the onus shifts away from the Crown to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt.

Two former friends who went to high school with Minassian have told The Canadian Press he lives with autism spectrum disorder, a neurological condition that affects how the brain functions.

People with autism may find it hard to connect with others, sometimes have difficulty communicating, repeat certain patterns of behaviour, and show interest in a limited number of activities, according to Autism Canada.

But numerous autism groups have said those with autism are far more likely to be on the receiving end of bullying and violence than inflicting it.

Justice Anne Molloy, who is presiding over trial via videoconference due to the pandemic, decided Thursday to grant access to the Crown if and when the defence calls the two psychiatrists who are co-authors of the report.

There are about 30 hours of interviews with Minassian and his family along with more than 100 pages of notes related to those interviews.

The Crown said it first learned about the recordings on Oct. 21 and did not know they wouldn’t have access to it until two days before trial began.

The prosecution’s experts will need time to go through all of the interviews if and when they get them, Callaghan said.

A transcript of the doctors’ interviews will not suffice, he said.

“It’s clear they’re relying on the manner of the answers and presentation of Mr. Minassian to help inform critical parts of their opinion,” Callaghan said.

Minassian’s lawyer, Boris Bytensky, argued the Crown has the doctors’ reports that summarize their findings and opinions on Minassian’s state of mind, but the full video and audio of the interviews, as well as medical notes, are covered under litigation priviledge.

Molloy said that would only be the case if the doctors did not testify.

Bytensky said while the doctors made audio and video recordings of their interviews with Minassian, they have not used them as a source of information, nor have they watched or listened to them again. Therefore, they are akin to defence notes, he said.

Court will resume Monday when the defence will launch their case with Minassian’s father as its first witness.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 12, 2020.

Liam Casey, The Canadian Press

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. An earlier version incorrectly said Minassian was asking to be found criminally responsible. He has asked to be found not criminally responsible for his actions.

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