Dr. Alexander Westphal, a U.S. psychiatrist specializing in autism, is seen in this artist's impression.
An artist’s sketch of Dr. John Bradford.
Toronto van attack driver Alek Minassian has zero emotional response to the carnage he brought to his victims and their families — neither virtuous feelings of regret nor iniquitous feelings of pleasure, court heard during key testimony at the mass murder trial .
And if it wasn’t for the dark reaches of the internet, where compassion and taste are in short supply, the attack that killed 10 people and injured 16 others would never have happened, a psychiatrist told court Tuesday.
Dr. Alexander Westphal, a U.S.-based psychiatrist specializing in autism, who spent 14 hours interviewing and testing Minassian in preparation for trial, said he believes Minassian’s utter lack of emotion — and saturation in morbid online esoterica — created a break with reality that could lead the court to find Minassian not criminally responsible for the deadly attack.
“There is no question he has a very highly developed concept of the rule-nature of the wrongfulness of this. The problem is his comprehension of the real, horrific impact that something like this would have on other people,” Westphal testified Tuesday.
“Which I really, honestly, like, whatever I say in this evidence, I don’t think he understands that,” he said, with emotion apparent in his voice.
Although 28 years old and considered a high-function autistic person, Minassian still has a child-like conception of morality, he said.
“He is stuck at an early developmental stage of the development of moral judgment. He understands the rules, he can articulate the rules, he has a very sophisticated understanding of the rules.”
However, he cannot apply them to real life.
With Miniassian so poorly emotionally armed, he dived into shadowy corners of the internet, where he nourished his obsession with school shooters and mass murderers, fringe subcultures and black humour, where death is lampooned and venerated.
“It was in that environment that he conceived of what he ultimately did,” Westphal said.
“He was saturated in horrific material… it became for him one of his areas of real focus and so it was something he spent a lot of time looking at and thinking about and ruminating on and, I don’t doubt, that in the absence of this sort of thing, this would not have happened.”
It is not how you or I think about death
Minassian frequented online forums dedicated to incel ideology, short for “involuntarily celibate,” a fringe subculture of men angry with their inability to attract sexual interest from women. Minassian frequented a website known as Encyclopedia Dramatica, that maintained lists of mass murderers ranked by grim metrics such as kill counts and kill-to-injured ratios. Incel killers he was attracted to were on the lists, Westphal said.
“He still doesn’t have any emotional connection with what he did,” Westphal said. Minassian showed “no relish, no gloating.”
“He doesn’t have any emotional connection — he doesn’t experience remorse, he doesn’t experience regret, but he also doesn’t experience sadism. It doesn’t feel to him like he is great now, it is just nothing.”
Justice Anne Molloy, who is presiding over the trial held entirely online because of COVID-19 restrictions, stopped Westphal at that point.
If Minassian has a clear understanding of the physical consequences of his actions, she asked Westphal, then “what is it he doesn’t get?”
“It is not how you or I think about death,” Westphal answered.
“When we think about death we think of the grief dimension of death. We know the impact that it would have on people who love the person who has died and that is about the worst thing we can think of.”
Molloy questioned that too.
“I don’t think that’s the measure of it, though. If he kills a person who is alone in the world with no friends and no relatives and nobody to mourn his loss, it is nevertheless a murder. I don’t know that to understand that you’ve committed murder and what its consequences are you have to envision how many people will be upset about it.”
If he kills a person who is alone in the world with no friends and no relatives and nobody to mourn his loss, it is nevertheless a murder
Westphal said for Minassian, killing and death were utterly abstract things.
“I hate to bring this up,” he said, “but it really has the dissociative quality of someone who is playing a video game. That really is the flavour of how he completely and dispassionately talked about all of this. It is as abstract as killing people in a video game, which is a horrific thing for me.”
Minassian, of Richmond Hill, Ont., is charged with 10 counts of murder and 16 counts of attempted murder after he purposely drove a rented van down a busy sidewalk in Toronto in 2018 trying to hit as many people as he could.
His mental state is the focus at the trial because although he admits his acts and his intent, he pleads not guilty, claiming his autism prevented him from knowing it was wrong and asking to be found not criminally responsible.
Minassian’s legal team hired Westphal, a forensic psychiatrist specializing in autism and a professor at Yale University, to provide an expert opinion on Minassian’s mental state at the time of his van attack.
His subject’s autism distorted reality to such a degree it created a serious mental break, with similar impact to hallucinations or delusions, which are the usual basis for a legal defence of not criminally responsible for reasons of mental disorder, Westphal said.
In Westphal’s report, submitted to court, he wrote: “Despite the fact that he was not psychotic, his autistic way of thinking was severely distorted in a way similar to psychosis.”
Psychosis, an attribute in some killers deemed not criminally responsible, and the way Minassian experiences his autism, lead to the same place, Westphal said.
“It’s just as different, it really is,” he said of the way autism can alter reality, although not for all people with autism. “No person with autism is the same as another person with autism,” he said.
Court was shown brief excerpts of video interviews Westphal conducted with Minassian.
Minassian is wearing a bright orange shirt with Velcro instead of buttons down the front and sitting at a table in an institutional setting.
He recounted his attack in detail to Westphal’s team, speaking in a matter-of-fact voice. He refers to the initial group of people he hit as “the first batch.” He said of another group of victims: “I hit them all in a line.” He refers to some of his victims who he recalled hitting as “an old lady” a “man crossing the road.”
Westphal said he was struck by the “clinical, cold descriptions.”
The only time Minassian deviated from his monotone, flat delivery, Westphal said, was when it was suggested Minassian might be seen as a “bully” for attacking vulnerable people with the van.
He suddenly spoke loudly: “I’m not a bully. I hate bullies, how could anyone think that,” according to Westphal.
Members of the public logging in to watch the trial had their feed cut by the court before each video excerpt was shown — by order of the court.
Reporters from eight media organizations who challenged the trial secrecy in court were granted access to the restricted feed, but are banned from reproducing or broadcasting any of the video or audio of the interviews. The media can, however, describe the videos and their contents in words.
It is unusual for autism to be the basis for a not-criminally-responsible defence and Westphal’s opinion is controversial. A previous psychiatric expert witness, Dr. John Bradford, said he does not support it. Autism groups have spoken out, rejecting the idea and linking autism to violence.
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