Skip to main content

Defence lawyer Boris Bytensky, clockwise from top left, father of the accused Vahe Minassian, Justice Anne Malloy, and defendant Alek Minassian are shown during a murder trial conducted via Zoom videoconference, in this courtroom sketch on Nov. 16, 2020.Alexandra Newbould/The Canadian Press

When Vahe Minassian learned that his son Alek was the man behind the devastating Toronto van attack, he was in shock. It was as unbelievable a scenario, he said, as “being struck by lightning on a sunny day … twice.”

Testifying at his son’s murder trial Monday, more than two years later, the elder Mr. Minassian said he has still not been able to wrap his head around how his “gentle” son could have done such a thing. The last time he could recall him even being angry was when he would throw tantrums as a small child. He said he’s never seen his son cry.

Alek Minassian, 28, who has argued that he is not criminally responsible for killing 10 people and attempting to kill 16 others in April, 2018, when he drove a van down a busy Toronto sidewalk for several blocks, has autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Defence lawyer Boris Bytensky contends that this made him incapable of rationally understanding that what he did was wrong, the court heard Monday.

In an overview of his defence position, Mr. Bytensky said that while his client has communicated some acknowledgement that what he did was wrong, "he did not understand wrongfulness in a way that enabled him to apply that understanding in a rational way.”

Autism is the sole diagnosis at play in their defence. Mr. Bytensky said Mr. Minassian is not a psychopath, nor a narcissist. He does not have anti-social personality disorder and he is also not a malingerer.

Mr. Bytensky also stressed that the vast majority of people with ASD are non-violent, and that they are in fact more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators.

Mr. Minassian had no history of violence.

On Monday, Vahe Minassian testified virtually (the trial is being held by video conference because of the COVID-19 pandemic) about the challenges Alek Minassian faced growing up. After his diagnosis at the age of 5, he attended a specialized program. When he reintegrated to the mainstream school system, he was placed in special-education classes.

Alek Minassian excelled in some subjects, his father said, but lagged far behind in others. He could recite or memorize material, but had difficulty interpreting or analyzing.

He would become “hyper-focused” on certain things, his father said. For example, he recalled an hour-plus-long dance-instruction video that Alek Minassian became fixated on as a child. He watched it over and over again until he memorized the entire thing; able to perform it move for move, word for word, entirely in sync.

When it came to socializing, he said Alek Minassian had trouble picking up on social cues or facial expressions, and had difficulty maintaining eye contact.

By April, 2018, he said, his son seemed to be “upbeat.” He had just completed a degree in software development, and had accepted a job offer for a programming position that would pay him $70,000 a year. He was talking about having more free time to catch up with his brother, and with friends.

The morning of the attack, Vahe Minassian dropped his son off at a Starbucks, where he said he was meeting a friend.

It was only after a police officer pulled him over later that afternoon that he learned his son had instead walked four kilometres to a nearby Ryder rental outlet, to pick up the van that he would use as his weapon.

In his interview with police after his arrest, Mr. Minassian cited an allegiance to the toxic “incel” subculture (a network of misogynistic men, predominantly online, who blame women for their inability to have sexual relationships) as motivation for the mass killing.

When Vahe Minassian watched a video of his son’s interview, he was struck by an anecdote that Alek Minassian had shared about being rejected by women at a Halloween party back in 2013. That’s virtually impossible, the father said: Alek would barely acknowledge a female waitress at a restaurant, never mind walk up to a woman at a party.

He believes his son was reciting things that he read in a manifesto by a mass murderer in the United States considered to be the forefather of the “incel” movement.

In the two years since his son was arrested, Vahe Minassian said he has made regular visits to see him in jail. And while they do not discuss the case as per legal advice, he said his son has made comments that left him questioning whether he understands the gravity of what he’s done.

For example, he said, Alek Minassian once asked him for advice about filing his taxes. Another time, he asked his dad whether the case has affected him at all. In the leadup to the initial trial date (which was postponed this spring because of the pandemic), he said Alek told him he was looking forward to the trial; that “everybody would see I haven’t done anything wrong.”

“Has he ever appeared remorseful for what he’s done?” Mr. Bytensky asked him Monday.

The elder Mr. Minassian shook his head: “No.”

“Has he ever apologized for what he has done?” Mr. Bytensky asked. Crying, he shook his head again. “No.”

The trial resumes Tuesday.

Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.