Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

Clockwise from left: crown attorney Joe Callaghan, Justice Anne Molloy, Alek Minassian and Dr. Alexander Westphal in a Nov. 30, 2020, courtroom sketch.Alexandra Newbould/The Canadian Press

A forensic psychiatrist and key witness for the defence told the Toronto van attack trial Wednesday that he does not believe Alek Minassian understood the “moral wrongfulness” of killing 10 people and injuring 16 others, but stopped short of opining on whether the 28-year-old should be found criminally responsible.

“That [would be] a legal opinion, not a psychiatric one,” Alexander Westphal, a Yale University professor with expertise in autism spectrum disorder, or ASD, told the court during cross-examination at Mr. Minassian’s trial Wednesday.

Mr. Minassian is charged with 10 counts of first-degree murder and 16 counts of attempted murder in connection with the April 23, 2018 attack, in which he used a rented van to run down pedestrians in Toronto. His defence team has argued that his ASD made him unable to understand on a rational level that what he was doing was wrong. As a result, they say he should be found not criminally responsible, or NCR.

This question of culpability – and whether autism is a legitimate pathway to a defence that has traditionally been reserved for people with psychosis – is the core question for Ontario Superior Court Justice Anne Molloy at the judge-alone trial.

While Dr. Westphal has done a “handful” of not guilty by reason of insanity assessments in Connecticut where he is based, he said Wednesday that he could not speak specifically to the NCR test in Canada: “I’m not qualified to make that determination.”

Instead, his focus was on Mr. Minassian’s capacity for moral understanding and rational decision-making.

In a video clip of Dr. Westphal’s interview played for the court Wednesday – the judge has previously ruled the interview cannot be released to the public – Mr. Minassian acknowledges that he knows killing is wrong, and says he was aware “there would be a lot of people dead as a result [of his attack],” and that “death is irreversible.”

But Dr. Westphal argued there is a disconnect in his understanding. “He can articulate in 100 different ways the wrongfulness of what he did and why it was wrong. … He understands the rules,” he said. “The problem is the stage beyond that. … He has no insight into the kind of mechanisms behind those rules, because of his neurodevelopmental condition.”

Court has previously heard that Mr. Minassian gave differing explanations of his motive for the attack. After his arrest, for example, he told police that he was inspired by the incel (short for involuntarily celibate) subculture, an internet-based network of misogynistic men who blame women for their inability to have sexual relationships. He later told Dr. Westphal that he made that up to “spice up” the narrative, because he did not think anyone would be interested in his own life.

None of the explanations he gave – another of which was that he was anxious about a new job he was scheduled to start – make any sense, Dr. Westphal stressed. “Given the absence of anger in his background, an absence of an agenda that he was seeking to fulfill … to me nothing adds up, except the explanation that he didn’t understand the horrific nature of what he was doing.”

“But you understand this trial isn’t about why he did it,” Crown lawyer Joseph Callaghan replied, during cross-examination. Dr. Westphal agreed.

Mr. Callaghan suggested that Dr. Westphal was “selective” in what portions of their interviews factored into his report. He also pushed back on Dr. Westphal’s characterization of Mr. Minassian as flat and devoid of emotion.

He played another interview clip for the court, in which Mr. Minassian is asked by Dr. Westphal what he thinks the children of his victims must be feeling. He says he imagines “they’d be extremely upset with me.”

When he’s asked whether he thinks they will see him as a bully, he says that “they’d probably think a lot of negative words. … That’s probably one word.”

Mr. Callaghan suggested that Mr. Minassian’s responses are thoughtful, and that he shows “real perspective-taking.”

Dr. Westphal agreed, but disputed that these responses capture a thorough understanding of the impact of this mass killing. For example, he noted, the victims’ families would be feeling far worse than “extremely upset.”

The cross-examination continues Thursday.

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.