Computer issues may delay murder trial for Alek Minassian in Toronto van attack

TORONTO — The heavily encrypted digital devices owned by the man who carried out the deadly Toronto van attack are giving his own lawyer problems, court heard Thursday, which may delay the start of Alek Minassian’s first-degree murder trial.

Minassian, of Richmond Hill, Ont., made a brief court appearance Thursday as the defence and Crown finalize his case before next year’s murder trial, set to begin Feb. 10.

Court heard the defence’s forensic computer experts had only just been able to crack Minassian’s devices, after being granted access to them several months ago.

“I thought Mr. Minassian had the password,” said Justice Anne Molloy, who will preside over the case without a jury.

“It’s more challenging than that, Your Honour,” replied Boris Bytensky, Minassian’s lawyer.

Both the Crown and defence said the issues may delay the start of trial by a week or two, but both said they were confident it wouldn’t be longer than that.

The 27-year-old Minassian is charged with 10 counts of first-degree murder of first-degree murder and 16 counts of attempted murder in the incident that took place on Yonge Street on April 23, 2018.

Minassian told police just hours afterward that he committed the attack as retribution for years of sexual rejection and ridicule by women. Molloy said in the summer that the case will turn on Minassian’s state of mind at the time — not whether he was behind the wheel of the rental van that mounted a sidewalk and plowed through pedestrians.

Last month, the court ordered an in-custody assessment of Minassian’s mental condition, as sought by the Crown. Minassian will be assessed at Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health by Dr. Scott Woodside, according to documents filed in court.

At the same time, Bytensky’s team will continue to analyze his client’s computers. He said experts the defence has hired are struggling to mine the devices without the proper software, which is only available to law enforcement.

Minassian’s devices have long given the Crown problems, according to documents filed in court and unsealed after the media fought a sweeping publication ban sought by the defence.

Within two weeks of the attack, police had hired a third-party security company to crack Minassian’s phone, according to a police affidavit written by Det. Christopher Sloan of the Toronto police technical crimes unit in May.

The phone had “several layers of encryption” and a password, Sloan wrote, and appeared to contain customized encryption achieved by altering its operating system.

Police had also been running automated software continually for eight months in an effort to crack the password on Minassian’s Apple laptop, according to Sloan.

“It is highly unlikely that the password will be discovered, using current methods, in a timely manner,” Sloan wrote.

Bytensky sought to access the devices, which the Crown fought. Justice Molloy ordered the defence could access the devices as long as they abided by certain conditions.

Minassian had just finished his final exam as a software development student the day before the attack.

The case will return to court on Dec. 16.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 27, 2019.

Liam Casey, The Canadian Press

Toronto van attack

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