Canada’s leading forensic psychiatrist says he does not believe the man behind the Toronto van attack meets the threshold for someone who is not criminally responsible, at least in the “conventional” way, because he showed no signs of psychosis.
John Bradford testified Thursday at the trial of Alek Minassian, who admits to killing 10 people and injuring 16 others when he used a rented van as a weapon to drive through crowds of pedestrians on Toronto’s busy Yonge Street on April 23, 2018.
The 28-year-old’s defence team has asked Superior Court Justice Anne Molloy to find him not criminally responsible, or NCR, for the mass killing as a result of his autism spectrum disorder, which they say made him unable to rationally comprehend that what he was doing was wrong.
Dr. Bradford told the court he accepted that autism spectrum disorder, including high-functioning autism spectrum disorder, is a significant mental disorder. But, he said, “I don’t believe that it reaches the impact that psychosis has. To get to the sort of impact on operating mind that I am used to, you have to be psychotic.”
Dr. Bradford, who has been involved in some of Canada’s most high-profile murder trials, including those against Paul Bernardo, Robert Pickton and Russell Williams, told the court that he could not think of another Canadian case where an NCR defence with autism presented as the sole diagnosis was tested in court.
Dr. Bradford met with Mr. Minassian more than a dozen times as part of a mental-fitness evaluation at St. Joseph’s Healthcare in Hamilton. Before he arrived at the psychiatric facility, court heard, Mr. Minassian attempted suicide by drinking liquid soap. As a result, he was held in isolation.
Mr. Minassian was not observed to be depressed, Dr. Bradford recalled. He did show “ritualistic” behaviour, which included rearranging glasses of water, and smiled and talked to himself. But he showed no signs of psychosis (the fundamental symptoms of which are delusions and hallucinations) before, during or after the attack.
Dr. Bradford said he has limited experience with people with autism, and acknowledged there are experts in this area who do see it as a “pathway” to an NCR defence. But it’s not one that he supports.
For example, he said, while Mr. Minassian exhibited signs of being “hyper-focused” and having “overvalued ideas,” this is not the same thing as a true delusion, which is all-consuming and unwavering. Mr. Minassian also displayed a lack of empathy. But he has difficulty recognizing emotions and feelings, Dr. Bradford said, which is distinct from the deliberate and manipulative lack of empathy shown by psychopaths.
Court has previously heard that a U.S. psychiatrist Alexander Westphal is expected to support the claim Mr. Minassian is not criminally responsible owing to his autism spectrum disorder.
Autism and violence is a relatively new area of research generally, Dr. Bradford said, and is still not well understood. He stressed the majority of people with autism are not violent and are more likely to be the victims of violence than perpetrators. Only a small fraction of people on the spectrum engage in criminal behaviour, he said.
Dr. Bradford said he has reviewed research around mass murders and referenced a database of mass shooters in the United States. Of those killers, roughly 8 per cent had autism spectrum disorder. Another 16 per cent are believed to have likely had autism spectrum disorder (but because many mass murderers also kill themselves, there is often limited information available about them).
By comparison, Dr. Bradford said roughly 1 per cent of the general population has autism spectrum disorder. So while there does appear to be an over-representation of autism spectrum disorder among these killers, Dr. Bradford stressed that no actual causation is known.
Before the van attack, Mr. Minassian had no history of violence.
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