Alek Minassian killed 10 people and injured 16 in four minutes of terror on Yonge Street. Did he know what he did was wrong?
Alek Minassian: I know what I did was morally wrong. And extremely devastating. And irreversible.
Dr. Alexander Westphal: Did you know that at the time?
Minassian: Yes. I knew that a lot of people would be dead as a result. And I know that death is irreversible.
Dr. Westphal: Would you say that you knew that it was wrong? I mean, I know that you knew that a lot of people would be dead, but did you think it was right in some way or did you think that it was just plain wrong?
Minassian: I knew it was wrong.
Dr. Westphal: Wrong according to what standards?
Minassian: Societal role standards … the most important one being that it is extremely wrong to kill people.
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In the two years since he planned and carried out the worst mass killing in Toronto on April 23, 2018, Alek Minassian has spent more than 30 hours being interviewed, tested and observed by five forensic psychiatrists and three forensic psychologists.
For the past six weeks, his words, tone and demeanour were parsed in a judge-alone trial held entirely over Zoom due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
All to answer the question: when Minassian “slammed the accelerator” of a rented van and ran down as many people as he could, killing eight women and two men and injuring 16 more over four minutes, did his form of autism spectrum disorder render him unable to know what he was doing was morally wrong by the standards of society?
To the Crown the answer is simple. Just listen to his words. He called the rule against killing an “ingrained pillar” and that his actions would be seen by most as “unjustifiable.” In fact, that was part of why he did it, forensic psychiatrist Dr. Scott Woodside concluded. To cement his place in history as an infamous mass killer.
Minassian clearly knew carrying out his horrific plan as he did was morally wrong and thus does not meet the legal test to be found not criminally responsible due to a mental disorder, the Crown argued.
“Knowing that society regards it as wrong should be sufficient. We don’t, in my respectful submission, need to know why (it’s wrong),” said prosecutor Joe Callaghan in his closing arguments.
Defence lawyer Boris Bytensky, however, said it is a far more complicated, nuanced and philosophical question that must delve into whether Minassian was capable of making a rational decision.
Bytensky argued that Minassian’s particular manifestation of autism spectrum disorder caused his brain to develop with severely impaired cognitive empathy, also known as “theory of mind.”
It means he cannot understand that other people have their own desires, thoughts and feelings. And as a result, he cannot truly understand how other people feel. This is different from a psychopath, who can understand how others feel but doesn’t care, Bytenksy said.
In the simplest terms, Minassian sees other people as “objects,” testified defence expert Dr. Alexander Westphal over seven gruelling days. He cannot morally reason like someone without that severe empathy deficit innately can.
“To be able to figure it out, you must be able to feel it,” said Westphal, a Yale-based forensic psychiatrist specializing in autism spectrum disorder.
All of this ultimately means that Minassian does not have the capacity to make rational decisions, which requires being able to take into account the emotional impact his actions would have on other people, Bytensky argued,
Minassian especially did not have that capacity in the “split-second” when he identified his first group of victims waiting at the crosswalk at the intersection of Yonge and Finch, in North York, and chose to begin his attack before his originally planned location further downtown, Bytensky said.
To the defence, Minassian’s words don’t show the full picture.
Minassian said in many interviews with assessors that the impact on his victims would be “devastating” and that they would feel “grief-stricken.”
“I do feel a little guilty for the ones that are likely very young wondering why I killed their parents,” he told Westphal, and said he knew his actions would leave his parents “upset and disappointed.”
Westphal said this was all “lip service” from Minassian. It only shows his ability to understand at an intellectual level how people would feel, but still in a detached, cursory way. He expressed no remorse and no sadistic pleasure, and when asked by Det. Rob Thomas just hours after the attack if he would apologize to his victims, he said: “I honestly don’t know.”
In speaking with Westphal he acknowledged his victims would be angry, but also bizarrely said: “I was imagining if I was in the hospital with broken bones, I would be inconvenienced and uncomfortable.”
Westphal said he truly believes autism spectrum disorder can distort reality just as much as psychosis — the usual basis for a not criminally responsible defence — can.
Though they are not the same thing “both alter the way the world is perceived profoundly,” he said. “There are continuums, people it does more for and less for. But it is just as different, it really is.”
He added that it is very hard for someone whose brain developed in the typical way to understand this, part of the reason the defence argued the Crown’s team of experts did not have sufficient expertise in autism.
“In practical terms if you sit down with Mr. Minassian you get this sense of someone who has a lot of words and is highly articulate, so in a sense it is easy to get distracted by that veneer and to lose sight of how disabled he is in many of the really functional aspects of applying that intelligence to real-world problems,” Westphal said.
Westphal concluded the mass killing was “completely beyond (Minassian’s) comprehension … He had absolutely no insight into the terrible impact that act would have on other beings, and did not think about the pain he was bound to cause, nor understood it even slightly now.”
The Crown argued Westphal grossly understated Minassian’s abilities and came to his opinions based on flawed testing of Minassian’s real-world functioning, unfounded assumptions and a failure to really listen to and understand Minassian’s explanation of his motivations.
But either way, understanding the emotional impact on his victims is irrelevant, Callaghan said, pointing to the Supreme Court of Canada’s view that “the absence of such feelings is a common characteristic of many persons who engage in repeated and serious criminal conduct.”
Bytensky said both the law and science have evolved since that decision in 1981, when psychopaths were still allowed to use the defence of not criminally responsible.
This is an unprecedented not criminally responsible case. It is the first, at least in Canada, to be based solely on autism spectrum disorder. It also does not involve a person in a state of psychosis which experts testified is really the only way for a person’s mind to be so affected they don’t know consequences of their actions or that they are wrong.
Minassian had no history of violence or any previous interactions with the justice system, and deliberately concealed his plan from everyone around him to avoid any suspicion — leaving his family and a friend he’d been making plans with to see the latest Marvel movie stunned and horrified when they realized what he’d done.
The basis for Westphal’s opinion stems from a developing and new area of autism research, some of which is controversial and has been criticized by autistic people.
It’s a theory the renowned forensic psychiatrist first retained by the defence, Dr. John Bradford, views as only “hypothetical” and unlikely to meet the legal test though he would not give a final opinion because he did not have the depth of expertise in autism he felt he needed.
The defence also prompted concern from autism advocacy groups who fear the evidence will lead to harmful stereotypes being perpetuated, even though autism is not associated with violence and often autistic people are more likely to follow rules.
At the conclusion of the trial, Superior Court Justice Anne Molloy addressed the disability community directly, noting as experts have testified, that autism spectrum disorder (ASD) manifests differently every person with the disorder.
“Autism is not on trial here. Alek Minassian is on trial. He happens to have autism spectrum disorder. The issue at trial is not whether people with ASD do not know right from wrong or are incapable of making moral decisions, 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 be not criminally responsible for his actions,” she said.
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It has not been determined in Canadian courts if autism spectrum disorder even qualifies as a disease of the mind, as per the legal test for criminal responsibility.
However, both the Crown and Molloy have said it’s clear a person with severe ASD likely coupled with other disorders such as intellectual disability would almost certainly have the defence available to them.
The question the judge will have to address is whether Minassian’s ASD qualifies.
The Crown maintains it does not, given his demonstrated above-average intellect and his ability to successfully graduate high school and university, obtain jobs, join the military (though he left almost immediately) and interact socially with classmates, a small number of friends, and his family despite. He was also able to obtain a driver’s licence and had a credit card, both of which he used to rent the van. He performed extremely well in tests that required him to reason through moral dilemmas, though he took longer than usual.
The defence painted a very different picture, arguing Minassian’s intellectual level belied his extremely poor social skills and significant empathy deficit.
Minassian had “rigid, concrete” thinking, was hyper-focused on the idea of getting the highest “kill count,” and most critically, no emotional understanding, the defence argued. Westphal pointed to Minassian’s chilling, “shopping-list”-like description of the attack as an example.
“I hit them all in a line and then I kept driving for a little while and then there was some tree. One of those cinderblock holders and I had to slow down. I drove left around it and then I drove forward, kept driving forward and then I saw there was another man. He was by himself, he was facing the street and then as soon as, right when I was coming close he turned his head left, saw the van, got surprised and before he got a chance to react I hit him and I kept driving forward,” Minassian said, making a face to imitate the man’s surprise.
“And then I saw it was an old lady on a walker next to a pizza stop. I ran over her with the right, front right tire.”
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Minassian:“If I went out and killed people without any reason, then I’m just an average mass killer, but if I say something on a large social network platform then I tie myself into some other big-time names ... increase my name and infamy regarding the killing.”
As the testimony unfolded Minassian sat mostly still in a chair, hands clasped in his lap, in a small room at the Toronto South Detention Centre. He wore the same black suit every day, and kept a bottle of water and his well-worn red Bible on the floor next to him. He showed little reaction or disagreement as his motives were dissected.
Going into the trial, it appeared those motives were relatively clear. In a four-hour long police interview given 10 hours after the attack Minassian described his desire to start an “incel uprising.” He said he had become radicalized into the misogynist online community after being rejected by women.
Minassian later told psychiatrists almost everything he said in the interview was a lie, made up because he wanted to garner as much media attention as possible.
He explained he cited incels and one of their most revered icons as a way to boost his own notoriety. “It is kind of like working at a company and your boss is really famous, some people might brag about working for him,” he said.
In the interviews with psychiatrists Minassian expressed a number of motives that had little to do with incels, including a desire for infamy, anxiety about failing at a new job and disappointing his parents, adulation from fringe groups online, social isolation, hopelessness and “an extreme desire to want to do it.” He said he planned to die by being shot by police to avoid spending the rest of his life in prison.
A foundational part of Westphal’s opinion is that Minassian’s motives are entirely incoherent, thus the mass killing must have happened as a result of his mental disorder. Minassian saw a binary choice between failing a job and doing a mass killing, which cannot be reality-based, Westphal said.
But the Crown sought to show Minassian’s motives — while not reasonable since no motive to commit mass murder can be that — were somewhat understandable. Woodside pointed to Minassian’s loss of hope in his future as a particularly dangerous feeling.
The actual influence of the incel forums and other disturbing corners of the internet frequented by Minassian remains unclear.
Woodside said Minassian was not preoccupied with what he was reading online to the point he could not function or was delusional.
Woodside concluded Minassian was not only thinking clearly, he was able to push all the reasons not to do the attack out of his mind so he could do what he really want to do — an action not different from many people who commit heinous crimes.
He also had a history of seeking negative attention, which he saw as better than no attention at all.
Minassian turned to incel forums after experiencing mild rejection by three women, including asking a woman at the library for her number, Woodside said. He was aware the vile beliefs shared were not an accurate reflection of reality — he called it “hate-filled and mean” — but said it made him feel better.
“He read that and used that to make himself feel better,” Woodside said. “He knew that was not the whole story ... but he said it helped him forget that it took … effort on his part to be in a relationship.”
The thought of a mass killing was also not a new one for him.
Minassian had fantasized about school shootings since high school and would think about them more depending how depressed he was feeling — which a Crown expert suggested could have desensitized him to the horror of his actions, apart from his ASD.
He began researching mass killings and at some point he began looking at a website that ranked mass killers. He became focused on getting the highest score, which would be based on the number of people killed compared to the number of survivors, and achieving a “world record.” He told Woodside he was hoping to kill more than 100 people.
In the months before the attack, Minassian began reading the manifesto of Elliot Rodger, who killed six people in California in 2014, and is revered among the incel groups. It is unclear how often he read it or how obsessed he became with it but he said he identified with Rodger in some ways, including their age and shared feelings of isolation and being “depressed with society.”
Westphal concluded in his report that Minassian’s plan was “conceived in the context of his saturation with provocative, hate-filled material on the internet. ASD made him less able to appreciate the theatrical, exaggerated nature and extremeness of the material or the dark humour behind some of it. He took it very literally.”
He testified: “I don’t doubt, that in the absence of this sort of thing, this would not have happened.”
But the Crown noted Minassian told Westphal he was aware most people on the sites were joking, and that only some were serious. And though he was reading this material he was not entirely immersed in it. He was still finishing university, which he successfully did, and applying for jobs, landing a new software development job that would pay him $70,000 a year, the Crown said.
The job was a key source of anxiety for Minassian because he was afraid of failing both in performance and socially, and envisioned failing to accomplish anything for the rest of his life. He repeatedly told Westphal he felt like he would blow away like dust.
He said he saw a mass killing as an alternative.
“Whether you do something good or whether you do something bad, let’s say you make a really cool app at your work or let’s say you commit a mass killing ... you’ve done something, you’ve been proactive and you accomplished something,” he said.
But when asked by Westphal what he might tell his victims, Minassian said it could be spun in a different way. That “I was just desperate for approval or something like that. Kind of takes away my power and makes myself acknowledge that I’m actually very weak compared to both the victims and the families and the people on the internet that I was reading,” he said.
Minassian faces 10 first-degree murder charges for killing Ji Hun Kim and So He Chung, both 22. Anne Marie D’Amico, 30. Andrea Bradden, 33. Chul Min (Eddie) Kang, 45. Renuka Amarasingha, 45. Dorothy Sewell, 80. Geraldine (Gerry) Brady, 83. Munir Najjar, 85. Betty Forsyth, 94. He faces 16 more counts of attempted murder.
On March 3, Justice Molloy will either find him guilty, based on his admission that he planned and deliberately carried out the attack, or find him not criminally responsible. Either way he will be locked up likely for the rest of his life, given that he has said he would “certainly consider” committing another mass killing to improve his kill count and infamy, if released.
Many of the victims watched the Zoom trial from their homes, some from a viewing room set up at the courthouse. Among them was Nick D’Amico, whose sister Anne Marie was killed.
Hearing the graphic and detailed account of Minassian’s rampage along Yonge Street over hours on the first day “took the wind out of us,” he said. “It really kind of brought back to a level I haven’t experienced since right after the incident … It’s something you don’t wish on anybody.”
At first seeing Minassian on the screen and hearing his name constantly was jarring, especially since D’Amico deliberately doesn’t say his name. But as the trial went on, he said, Minassian seemed to diminish. Instead of the notorious, terrifying mass killer image he wanted to project, D’Amico said he just became a person, who got a fair trial.
And while Minassian’s links to the incel ideology are murkier than he first thought, D’Amico says as long as those toxic, misogynist forums are online and those thoughts are being shared, they need to be countered. Their family will continue their part through a foundation set up in Anne Marie’s name to raise funds for a women’s shelter in North York.
“The only thing we can do is focus on the people that were lost and the people we loved and the people who are hurt by this,” he said. “Then we can diminish anything that the perpetrator wanted to do.”