November 25th, 2020

Alek Minassian’s ‘autistic way of thinking’ similar to psychosis, murder trial hears


By Liam Casey, The Canadian Press on November 12, 2020.

Defence lawyer Boris Bytensky, clockwise from top left, Justice Anne Malloy, the court clerk, Crown attorney Joseph Callaghan, the scene of Yonge street attack and defendant Alek Minassian are shown during a murder trial conducted via Zoom videoconference, in this courtroom sketch on Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Alexandra Newbould

TORONTO – A psychiatrist hired by defence lawyers for the man behind Toronto’s 2018 van attack found Alek Minassian had an “autistic way of thinking” that was severely distorted, a court heard Thursday.

In the first glimpse of evidence Minassian’s lawyers may present at his murder trial, court heard that a doctor who interviewed the 28-year-old found he was not psychotic but had a thought process similar to psychosis.

Minassian has admitted in court to planning and carrying out the April 23, 2018 attack in which he drove a van down a busy Toronto sidewalk, killing 10 people and injuring 16 others.

He pleaded not guilty to 10 counts of first-degree murder and 16 counts of attempted murder, and has asked to be found not criminally responsible for his actions.

His defence team has yet to lay out what mental disorder Minassian had at the time that could have impacted his actions to the extent that he didn’t understand what he was doing was wrong.

But Crown lawyer Joe Callaghan provided insight into some of the evidence Minassian’s defence might raise by reading from a report prepared by a psychiatrist hired by the defence. The Crown is seeking access to the full video and audio of that psychiatrist’s interview with Minassian, as well as those conducted by other doctors.

“Overall it was our impression that despite the fact he was not psychotic, his autistic way of thinking was severely distorted similar to psychosis,” the report read.

Minassian denied he had symptoms consistent with psychotic illness, including visual and auditory hallucinations, the report noted.

“However, his thought process was very concrete and inflexible,” the report said

“Mr Minassian answered questions in a very concrete way often requiring the interviewer to rephrase questions several times in order for him to answer.”

The report said Minassian “would appear to be baffled” by some questions and either didn’t answer questions or his answers “were off the mark with extraneous details or missing the point.”

The trial previously heard that in a lengthy police interview, Minassian told a detective the attack was retribution against society because he was a lonely virgin who believed women wouldn’t have sex with him.

Because Minassian has raised a not criminally responsible defence, the onus shifts away from the Crown to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt.

Minassian’s lawyer will try to prove on a balance of probabilities that it’s more likely than not that Minassian had a mental disorder that impacted his actions to the extent that he didn’t understand what he was doing was wrong.

Former classmates of Minassian have told The Canadian Press Minassian lives with autism spectrum disorder, a neurological condition that affects how the brain functions.

People with autism may find it hard to connect with others, sometimes have difficulty communicating, repeat certain patterns of behaviour, and show interest in a limited number of activities, according to Autism Canada.

But numerous autism groups have said those with autism are far more likely to be on the receiving end of bullying and violence than inflicting it.

The judge presiding over Minassian’s trial, which is being conducted via videoconference, is weighing whether to grant a Crown motion filed Wednesday that seeks access to about 30 hours of interviews Minassian and his family gave to defence doctors, along with more than 100 pages of notes related to those interviews.

“The Crown is entitled to receive a complete a record of these interviews that exist,” Callaghan said.

A transcript of the doctors’ interviews will not suffice, he said.

“It’s clear they’re relying on the manner of the answers and presentation of Mr. Minassian to help inform critical parts of their opinion,” Callaghan said.

He said psychiatric and psychological experts hired by the Crown need to be able to see the interviews because it will inform their testimony.

Boris Bytensky, Minassian’s lawyer, said the Crown has doctors’ reports that summarize their findings and opinions on Minassian’s state of mind, but the full video and audio of the interviews, as well as medical notes, are covered under litigation priviledge.

Bytensky said while the doctors made audio and video recordings of their interviews with Minassian, they have not used them as a source of information, nor have they watched or listened to them again. Therefore, they are akin to defence notes, he said.

If Justice Anne Molloy sides with the Crown, there will likely be a delay in the trial so the prosecution and their expert witnesses can review the material, court heard.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 12, 2020.

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. An earlier version incorrectly said Minassian was asking to be found criminally responsible. He has asked to be found not criminally responsible for his actions.

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