TORONTO — The man who killed 10 people by deliberately driving down pedestrians on a Toronto sidewalk is a mass murderer who happened to have autism spectrum disorder, the prosecution said Friday.
Crown attorney Joe Callaghan said in closing arguments that Alek Minassian’s autism spectrum disorder – or ASD – didn’t push the man to carry out the attack on April 23, 2018.
Rather, Callaghan argues, Minassian knew what he was doing was wrong.
“The Crown respectfully submits this is about a person who committed mass murder who happened to have ASD, not that the ASD made him commit murders,” Callaghan said.
The six-week judge-alone trial, which was held by video conference due to the pandemic, concluded Friday.
Justice Anne Molloy will give her verdict on March 3.
Minassian has pleaded not guilty to 10 counts of first-degree murder and 16 of attempted murder.
The defence argues he is not criminally responsible for his actions on April 23, 2018, due to autism spectrum disorder.
Minassian has admitted to planning and carrying out the attack, leaving his state of mind at the time the only issue at trial.
The central question at trial is whether Minassian knew what he did was morally wrong and the legal test in this case focuses on whether he had the capacity at the time to make a rational choice, court heard.
Boris Bytensky, Minassian’s lawyer, said in his closing arguments Thursday that his client’s autism spectrum disorder left him incapable of making a rational choice at the time.
Bytensky said the disorder left Minassian without the ability to develop empathy and, ultimately, he was unable to know what he did was morally wrong.
Callaghan pointed to numerous comments Minassian made to various mental health assessors that he knew what he was doing was morally wrong.
“It’s, well, wrong in the sense that is immoral,” Minassian said.
Minassian told numerous psychiatrists and psychologists he didn’t feel compelled to commit the attack and does not suffer from any other illnesses, psychotic or otherwise.
“Fundamentally, it’s the Crown’s submission he had the capacity to make a choice,” Callaghan said.
“And in this case, there’s no evidence he ever lost the fact of the wrongness of his actions.”
Callaghan said it’s important to listen to Minassian, who spoke freely to three separate teams of mental health experts.
Minassian told them he had a strong desire to commit a mass killing, he was lonely, worried he’d fail at his upcoming software development job, a belief he’d never have a relationship with a woman, his infatuation with a mass murderer and, what many point to as his biggest motivator, the quest for notoriety.
“Some of the reasons that Mr. Minassian committed these murders has nothing do with his autism,” Callaghan said.
The prosecutor also noted that Minassian had thought about committing a mass murder for years and has fixated on school shootings since he was in high school.
The plan came into focus in late March, and on April 6, Minassian reserved a rental van from Ryder.
Court has heard Minassian targeted a different location for the attack — the exact target is under a publication ban — in an effort to maximize his “kill count” where he hoped to “set a world record” with 100 deaths.
But while in the van at a red light at Yonge Street and Finch Avenue, Minassian saw “enough people” on the sidewalk and changed course to launch his attack there.
Callaghan said Minassian had years to think about it, and weeks after he booked the van, yet he still chose to kill.
The plan was simple and its devastation easy to understand, he said.
“It was: rent van, drive van down street and kill people,” Callaghan said.
Callaghan pointed to Crown witnesses, a psychiatrist and psychologist who both said Minassian knew what he did was morally wrong and, therefore, did not meet the test to be found not criminally responsible for his actions.
He also noted the testimony of Dr. John Bradford, a renowned Canadian forensic psychiatrist who has assessed the likes of some of the country’s most infamous murderers from Robert Pickton to Paul Bernardo and Russell Williams.
Bradford, who undertook a court-ordered evaluation of Minassian, also said Minassian did not get to the level required to be found not criminally responsible for his actions, but did allow for a “theoretical” pathway to that finding.
The defence’s star witness, forensic psychiatrist Dr. Alexander Westphal, stopped short of saying Minassian was not criminally responsible, saying it was a legal decision, not a psychiatric one.
But he did say Minassian did not understand that killing 10 people was morally wrong.
Since Minassian has raised a not criminally responsible defence, his lawyers must prove it’s more likely than not he had a mental disorder that affected his actions to the extent that he didn’t understand what he was doing was wrong.
Callaghan argued Minassian’s defence has not done that.
“It’s the Crown’s position that Mr. Minassian has failed to demonstrate that at the time he planned and executed his attack, he lacked the capacity to know that his conduct was wrong according to the standards of reasonable members of Canadian society,” Callaghan said.
At the end of the day, the judge addressed the concerns of the disability community.
“Let me be clear, autism is not on trial, Alek Minassian is on trial, he happens to have autism,” Molloy said.
“The issue at this trial is whether the particular impact of ASD on this particular person at this particular point in time was such that he should not be held criminally responsible for his actions.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 18, 2020.
Liam Casey, The Canadian Press