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Lawyer: Toronto van attack suspect didn't know he was wrong

Posted November 16, 2020 5:16 p.m. EST
Updated November 16, 2020 5:17 p.m. EST

— The lawyer for a man who admits using a van to kill 10 pedestrians in Toronto said Monday that the defendant has autism spectrum disorder and didn’t know what he was doing was wrong.

Alek Minassian faces 10 counts of first-degree murder and 16 counts of attempted murder in connection with the April 23, 2018, attack that drew attention to an online world of sexual loneliness, rage and misogyny. He pleaded not guilty last week.

Minassian, 28, told police he belonged to an online community of sexually frustrated men, some of whom have plotted attacks on people who have sex.

He is accused of driving a rental van into crowds of pedestrians in a busy north Toronto neighborhood. Eight women and two men ranging in age from 22 to 94 died.

His lawyer, Boris Bytensky, argued that his client is not criminally responsible. He said Minassian only understood wrongfulness on an intellectual level but not at a rational level, and therefore could not make a rational decision as to whether or not to carry out the attack.

“He lacked the capacity to rationally decide whether it was right or wrong,” Bystensky said.

He said Minassian does not suffer from any psychopathy or anti-social disorder, and is not narcissistic.

Minassian’s father, Vahe Minassian, testified that his son was diagnosed with “pervasive development disorder” when he was 5 years old. Bystensky said that now is known as autism spectrum disorder.

“He does not understand the suffering and devastation that he has caused,” Vahe Minassian said of his son.

Bystensky noted the vast majority of people with autism spectrum disorder are nonviolent and are more likely to be victims of violence. He said the incident was completely unexpected to all that knew him and that Minassian had no history of violence.

The judge has said the case will turn on Minassian’s state of mind at the time.

“Has he ever appeared remorseful for what he’s done?” Bytensky asked Vahe Minassian, who was testifying.

“No,” he replied through tears.

“Has he ever apologized?” the lawyer asked.

“No,” Vahe Minassian said.

During a visit in the spring, the defendant said he was looking forward to the trial so “everybody will see that I haven’t done anything wrong,” the father said.

“Over time that has led me to believe that he really does not understand what’s happened,” Vahe Minassian said.

Minassian, who said he never had a girlfriend and was a virgin, admitted to police he used the van as a weapon and said he wanted to inspire more attacks.

Minassian called himself an “incel,” short for “involuntary celibate,” an online subculture that has been linked to other attacks and that often promotes the idea men are entitled to have sex with women.

The court opted for a trial on Zoom videoconference because of the coronavirus pandemic so the lawyers, Minassian, the judge and witnesses are in different places.

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