TORONTO — The man who used his rental van as a weapon on a busy Toronto sidewalk in 2018, killing 10 people and badly injuring in the city’s worst mass killing, was found guilty of murder and attempted murder by an Ontario judge on Wednesday.
Rejecting the novel argument that his autism spectrum disorder rendered him not criminally responsible, Ontario Superior Court Justice Anne Molloy ruled that the defendant, Alek Minassian, understood clearly what he was doing, despite the conclusion of several experts that he was incapable of feeling empathy because of his neurodevelopmental disorder.
“This was the exercise of free will by a rational brain, capable of choosing between right and wrong. He freely chose the option that was morally wrong, knowing what the consequences would be for himself, and for everybody else,” said Justice Molloy, who throughout her verdict refused to identify the defendant by name, instead calling him “John Doe.”
“It does not matter that he does not have remorse, nor empathize with the victims,” the judge said.
Three years later, the event still haunts the city where mass killings are relatively rare.
It was a beautiful spring afternoon in April when Mr. Minassian, driving a rental van he’d picked up just an hour earlier, mounted the curb of a busy sidewalk in the city’s dense north end, and plowed into pedestrians, sending bodies as far as 26 feet into the air and dragging others under the vehicle.
He finally stopped when a victim’s coffee splashed onto the windshield, blurring his view, and then attempted “suicide by cop,” by pretending he was armed and yelling at a police officer to shoot him.
The dead included two 22-year-old students from South Korea, a Jordanian senior visiting his grandchildren and a single mother who had immigrated from Sri Lanka. Eight were women.
Many of the survivors suffered catastrophic injuries — spine fractures, hemorrhaging brains, broken ribs and hips and, in one case, leg amputations.
The event was shocking for another reason: It was the first time many in Toronto heard the term “incel” — short for involuntary celibate, a self-claimed label for men who blame women for denying them sex.
Minutes before starting his attack, the defendant posted a tribute to Elliot Rodger, of the misogynist movement, on his Facebook account, and proclaimed, “The Incel Rebellion has already begun!” Mr. Minassian has since been named a hero by many in the incel online community, though during the trial, forensic experts testified he did not actually believe in the group’s message, but had merely used it to increase his shock value.
Since the defendant had already pleaded guilty to 10 counts of first degree murder and 16 counts of attempted murder, the six-week trial focused on his state of mind, and whether his disorder had rendered him incapable of understanding his crime was wrong. This was once known as the “insanity defense.”
The defendant’s lawyers made a novel argument that while Mr. Minassian understood what he had done was legally wrong, his form of autism spectrum disorder made him incapable of feeling empathy and understanding the inner world of others, which was a necessary component of making rational decisions.
A finding of not criminally responsible is uncommon in Canada and the vast majority of them relate to episodes of psychotic spectrum disorder or mood disorders. Some experts said that despite the decision, the case had set new legal ground, as the government lawyers and the judge had conceded during the trial that a person with severe autism spectrum disorder, likely coupled with other disorders, would qualify for this kind of defense.
The defendant, 28, never took the stand, so all insights into his motives and state of mind came through the expert testimony of forensic psychiatrists and psychologists who interviewed him after the crime and examined files taken from more than two dozen electronic devices in his family home.
Over the weeks, a complicated portrait of the defendant emerged: He grew up in a Toronto suburb, biking and bowling, and was intellectually advanced, but he had a form of autism spectrum disorder that made him socially stunted and unable to form close emotional bonds. He developed ticks and was bullied, but had a loving family and a few friends. And he was accomplished: A couple days before picking up the rental van to complete his grisly plan, he had handed in the final assignment for his college degree in computer programming, and was set to start a $55,000-a-year software development job.
He had no criminal history, and no history of violence.
Mr. Minassian’s father, in an emotional testimony, described his son as “happy” and “gentle,” and said there were no signs he was plotting such a terrible deed. “The chances of Alek doing that would be like being struck by lightening on a Sunday, twice,” said the father, Vahe Minassian.
But the virtual courtroom also heard from forensic psychiatrists that the defendant had ritualistically researched mass murders and school shootings during high school, intensely studied Elliott Rodger’s women-hating manifesto in later years and lurked on Reddit “incel” subgroups and “incel” chat sites, identifying with the members’ loneliness and frustration at not finding girlfriends.
He was lonely, fearful of failing at his upcoming job, and fixated on gaining fame for a mass killing, telling clinicians after the mass killing that he wished he had killed many more people, according to expert testimony.
Government prosecutors argued the defendant carefully assembled his plan for a month, executed it on his own free will and clearly understood society would find it wrong. “This is a trial about a person who committed a murder, who also happens to have A.S.D., not that the A.S.D. made him commit murders,” said the lead counsel for the government on this case, Joe Callaghan, in his closing arguments, referring to his client’s autism spectrum disorder.
Mr. Minassian’s defense lawyer, Boris Bytensky, argued that while the defendant knew what he had done was legally wrong, his form of autism spectrum disorder made it impossible for him to empathize with others, which Mr. Bytensky said was key to making a rational decision and understanding the immorality of his actions.
Some experts said even before the decision that the case had set new legal ground, as the government lawyers and the judge had said during the trial that a person with severe autism spectrum disorder, likely coupled with other disorders, would be eligible for this kind of defense.
“That to me changed the landscape right there,” said Cynthia Fromstein, a criminal lawyer in Toronto who is an alternate chair on both the Ontario and Nunavut review boards, which annually assess the cases of people who have been placed in psychiatric hospitals, considering whether they remain a threat to society and require continued institutionalization.
Since the tragic event, the defendant has become a hero in the murky world of “incels,” with followers glorifying him and using his face as their profile pictures online, according to academic reports. In Canada, he has been said to be the inspiration of at least one attempted double murder.
Last year, police announced that a young man, who faced murder and attempted murder charges for stabbing several people in a Toronto massage parlor with a machete, would also face terrorism charges because of his “incel” beliefs. It was the first time Canadian police recognized misogynistic crimes as terrorism.
Allison Hannaford contributed reporting from North Bay, Ontario.