Toronto Star

Minassian saw attack as game, trial told

Accused in van assault viewed pedestrian­s as ‘objects,’ expert testifies


Due to the way his autism spectrum disorder impaired his capacity for empathy, Alek Minassian sees people as “objects” and running down pedestrian­s in a rented van like playing a video game to achieve a final score, a forensic psychiatri­st testified Wednesday.

However, Dr. Alexander Westphal, whose testimony is the basis for Minassian’s defence, would not give an opinion on whether Minassian meets the legal criteria to be found not criminally responsibl­e.

In cross-examinatio­n, Westphal, a professor at Yale testifying for the first time in a Canadian case, said he did not have the expertise in the Canadian legal test to give that opinion.

“I think he didn’t understand the moral wrongfulne­ss of his actions, but it’s not my determinat­ion to make in terms of him being not criminally responsibl­e,” he said.

Minassian, 28, has admitted to renting a van and running down pedestrian­s on a Yonge Street sidewalk on April 23, 2018. Minassian is seeking to be found not criminally responsibl­e for the first-degree murder of 10 people and the attempted murder of 16 people because his autism spectrum disorder rendered him incapable of knowing what he did was morally wrong. Such a defence based solely on autism spectrum disorder is a legal first in Canada.

Minassian’s lawyer Boris Bytensky has said he will be arguing Minassian lacked the capacity to rationally decide if his actions were right or wrong and therefore could not make a rational decision as to whether or not to do it.

Westphal has concluded that “intellectu­ally” Minassian understand­s what he did was morally wrong, and that society sees it as morally wrong. Minassian told Westphal in interviews: “I know what I did was morally wrong and extremely devastatin­g and irreversib­le” and that there was no moral justificat­ion for what he did.

But, Westphal said, Minassian’s autism spectrum disorder has left him unable to “understand fully why it is morally wrong to kill people” because he is unable to understand how his actions devastate other people.

“To be a fully formed moral agent you need to be able to understand the context for your actions, you need to be able to recognize people as freestandi­ng moral agents in themselves, to be able recognize they are other beings and they have lives which are as valuable as your own life,” Westphal said. “To not recognize that, to see people as objects in the way that Mr. Minassian clearly did to me … reflects a very substantia­l breakdown of this entire process.” This means Minassian cannot make a rational decision with moral implicatio­ns, he testified.

“In your view, was Minassian capable of making a rational choice to do or not to on April 23, 2018?” Bytensky asked.

“No. In this circumstan­ce, absolutely not. I really don’t think he does,” Westphal said.

In cross-examinatio­n, Crown prosecutor Joe Callaghan pushed back against Westphal’s opinion, suggesting that Minassian’s thoughtful and clear discussion­s about his actions show his “core belief system” sees killing as a moral wrong. In one video clip from his interview with Westphal, Minassian described it as an “ingrained soul rule.”

Westphal said Minassian can articulate the rules of society but — despite what he says — he is unable to understand the meaning behind the rules or why they exist, something that most people learn naturally.

Callaghan also repeatedly questioned Westphal about what he chose to include and exclude from his report, suggesting Westphal was “selective” and doesn’t fairly or accurately represent what Minassian told him.

He suggested Westphal’s choice of quote to show Minassian’s understand­ing of moral wrongfulne­ss was among his “weakest statements” from the interviews he did with Westphal.

Westphal stood by his report, and said the quote from Minassian that there is “no moral justificat­ion for it, so for the public eye, it would be extremely upsetting and immoral” was a fair summary and that Minassian’s comments don’t show that he actually understand­s that his actions were morally wrong.

Callaghan suggested Minassian showed himself capable of adopting the perspectiv­e of the child of one of his victims, when asked to do so by Westphal.

The child would be “extremely upset with me,” Minassian said. “They’re not going to care that I was socially isolated.”

Callaghan said Minassian clearly understand­s his victims’ families won’t give “two toots” about his plight, given the damage he’s done.

Westphal said this doesn’t capture the level of devastatio­n that occurred, and maintained it doesn’t show Minassian is capable of meaningful insight.

In another video clip played Wednesday, Westphal asks Minassian if he would carry out the mass killing again if he could go back in time.

Minassian said he would, but would make sure that he died.

When asked if he would do it again if he got out of prison, he said: “I’d certainly think about it. Not sure if I’d go through with it or not.” He said he would do it for more recognitio­n and media attention, as well as increasing his “kill count.”

In the clip, Minassian said if he hadn’t linked his mass killing to incels, it wouldn’t have received as much media attention. He said that if he could pick a specific target, it would be women between the age of 18 and 30 to be consistent with the incel narrative. Though Minassian, in a Facebook post and to police, has said he was motivated by the incel movement, which is based in the hatred of women, he has since denied being an incel and claimed he said that in part to get media attention.

In another clip, Minassian described a mass killing as an accomplish­ment, versus failing at a job for the rest of his life.

It “would have been the fact that I’d done something … brought something to my name,” he said. Slipping on a banana peel “is a failure” that makes people laugh, he told Westphal. If you make a cool app or do a mass killing, “you’ve done something, you’ve been proactive, you’ve accomplish­ed something.”

Westphal said Minassian’s confusing and bizarre accounts of his motivation­s show his irrational and distorted thinking. Minassian showed no prior signs of violence or anger, Westphal said. and in his view, Minassian did not commit the mass killing out of anger or revenge.

The trial continues.

Minassian said if he hadn’t linked his mass killing to incels, it wouldn’t have received as much attention

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