Ten people were killed and 16 injured in Toronto’s worst mass killing, in 2018. When the criminal trial of the man accused in the van attack began this month, many hoped it would finally provide some closure for the attack, which shocked a country where mass killings remain rare. At least some hoped to understand why Alek Minassian, who had just graduated from college, decided to kill so many strangers along the city’s main street before attempting “suicide by cop” by pretending he was armed and yelling at a police officer to shoot him. The trial has dominated the news, as each day in court offers a fuller picture of the defendant’s life and mental state, reports the New York Times.
It is occurring on Zoom because of the coronavirus pandemic, and so none of the victims or their survivors can come face-to-face with the killer. The defendant, now 28, has pleaded not criminally responsible — what was once known as the “insanity defense.” If he prevails, he would be sent to a psychiatric institution for treatment rather than prison. His lawyers have made the rare argument that he was incapable of understanding the murders were wrong from a moral perspective because he has autism spectrum disorder, a condition not usually associated with violent attacks. “I can’t fathom somebody trying to pass the responsibility off like that,” said Jesse James, a community organizer who helped plan vigils and marches in the attack’s aftermath. The defendant was driving the van up to 29 miles per hour, knocking victims as far as 26 feet in the air. Not criminally responsible findings are uncommon in Canada; most relate to psychotic spectrum disorder or mood disorders. Experts in mental disorder law are watching the trial closely and consider the defense “unusual if not unprecedented,” said one defense lawyer.