Even though his plan was to die in the Toronto van attack, and even though he knew he’d be incarcerated if he survived, Alek Minassian was motivated by the notoriety he would achieve in the dark corners of the internet for the mass killing, court heard on Monday.
In a video clip shown at the 28-year-old’s trial, Mr. Minassian, in an interview with a psychiatrist, said that if he was given the opportunity to speak to the families of his victims, he would “tell them the truth”: that he targeted innocent or random people because he knew he’d be “patted on the back” online.
Mr. Minassian’s defence team has argued he should be found not criminally responsible, or NCR, for the van attack on April 23, 2018, in which he killed 10 people and injured 16 others by using a van to run down hordes of pedestrians on Yonge Street. Lawyer Boris Bytensky has argued his client’s autism spectrum disorder made him unable to understand on a rational level that what he was doing was wrong.
The interview clip was entered during the fourth day of the prosecution’s cross-examination of Alexander Westphal, a forensic psychiatrist who specializes in autism spectrum disorder and conducted a psychiatric assessment of Mr. Minassian.
Dr. Westphal has testified at length about what he has characterized as Mr. Minassian’s “literal” interpretation of things he read online, in internet chatrooms and forums dedicated to mass killers and the incel subculture, which is a misogynistic collective of men who blame women for their inability to have sexual relationships.
“No doubt Mr. Minassian’s plan was conceived in the context of his saturation with provocative, hate-filled material on the internet,” Dr. Westphal, who is a key witness for Mr. Minassian’s defence, wrote in his report. “[Autism spectrum disorder] made him less able to appreciate the theatrical, exaggerated nature … or the dark humour behind some of it. He took it very literally.”
Crown attorney Joseph Callaghan has argued that Dr. Westphal picked and chose what to include in his report in order to fit a predetermined narrative.
Bur after four days of critiques, Dr. Westphal remained firm in his views, arguing that his report was a reflection of his clinical opinion, and that he was doing his best to digest and analyze a broad situation.
“I feel like we’re going in circles here,” he told Mr. Callaghan at one point Monday.
For example, the two butted heads for some time over a reference in Dr. Westphal’s report to the “nervousness” that Mr. Minassian described feeling in the lead-up to the attack. He also told the psychiatrist that had his rental van reservation – made in early April – fallen through, it might have been the “best-case scenario,” and that going through with the attack was a “backup plan.”
In Mr. Callaghan’s view, this showed Mr. Minassian wrestling with the moral decision. In Dr. Westphal’s, it showed a concrete and “binary” thought process.
One of the main points of contention throughout the cross-examination has been whether Mr. Minassian understood the impact the attack would have on other people – including the families of his victims as well as his own family.
When it came to his parents, for example, court heard that Mr. Minassian told psychiatrists that he believed his parents would be “100 per cent” emotionally affected by what he’d done, but only “5 per cent” affected in their day-to-day life. While Mr. Callaghan said this reflects Mr. Minassian’s understanding of the impact this has had on them, Dr. Westphal suggested instead that it was an abstract interpretation of their immense devastation.
In the video clip shown to court Monday, in which Mr. Minassian was asked what he would say to his victims’ families, he said he imagined they’d have a hostile reaction to any sort of apology from him, which he thought would be seen as “disingenuous.”
Dr. Westphal will return Tuesday for re-examination by Mr. Bytensky.