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Alek Minassian was never aggressive to others before van attack, court hears

·4 min read

TORONTO — The man who drove a van down a sidewalk and killed 10 people in Toronto struggled to understand others throughout his entire life despite his high intelligence, court heard Monday.

Alek Minassian, from Richmond Hill, Ont., was terrified of girls and women, had deep esoteric obsessions and had a "striking absence" of empathy, said Dr. Alexander Westphal, a psychiatrist who specializes in autism.

Minassian has pleaded not guilty to 10 counts of first-degree murder and 16 counts of attempted murder. The defence argues he is not criminally responsible for his actions on April 23, 2018, due to autism spectrum disorder.

Westphal, a professor at Yale University in the U.S. who is testifying for the defence, is expected to be the only expert to say that Minassian should be found not criminally responsible because of his autism.

"He's got a very substantial impairment in interpersonal skills that translates into very limited social circles and no romantic relationships in his history," Westphal said.

Westphal said Minassian scored in the 92nd percentile in the verbal portion of an IQ test, but that his overall "adaptive skills," on a different test, is similar to that of a young child.

"The disconnect between his intellectual ability and his ability to apply it to real life is stark," Westphal said.

The psychiatrist testified based on interviews with the accused, his family and old medical records.

He said Minassian has trouble interacting with the world.

"If you sit down with Mr. Minassian, you get a sense of someone who has a lot of words and is highly articulate, but in a sense it is quite easy to get distracted by that veneer and lose sight how disabled he is," Westphal said.

Minassian was diagnosed at five years old with pervasive developmental disorder, which is now considered part of autism spectrum disorder.

His parents noticed he never made eye contact and often played alone. 

He'd eventually learn to make eye contact after being taught, and he also did not smile much, Westphal said.

"He didn't smile socially, it was just not part of his facial repertoire."

Minassian also became obsessed with Mr. Bean, a popular British sitcom, Westphal said, and imitated the character's way of speaking.

He said it may have been Mr. Bean's "hyperemotivity," or exaggerated facial expressions, that attracted Minassian.

Minassian never showed aggression to others, just himself, prior to perpetrating the attack, Westphal testified.

He said Minassian's only known aggression in life was as a young child when he would thrash his head against the wall.

Throughout high school and into early adulthood, Minassian, now 28,  told Westphal he was scared of women and girls. 

One of Minassian's stated motivations for the attack is retribution against society for years of rejection by women. He has told psychiatrists as well as the police that he became entangled with the so-called "incel movement" online where men discuss their hatred of women.

Incels believe they are on the lowest rung of society and large-scale attacks would destabilize society, which would then give incels the chance to come out on top. 

Westphal testified that when Minassian saw girls in school, he would jump back, saying, "Don't hurt me, don't hurt me." 

He was so uncomfortable around women that he could not give his order at a restaurant if the wait staff was female, Westphal said.

Minassian has never had a relationship with a woman, Westphal testified.

"The closest he got to any romantic relationship was a girl who he got her phone number from and when he texted her, she didn't text him back," Westphal said.

Another psychiatrist previously testified that Minassian did not show any anger toward women and, at one point, recanted his hatred towards women as his motivation.

Minassian has also said he was motivated by the notoriety an attack would bring as well as "extreme anxiety" related to starting a new job. 

Minassian was teased and bullied throughout school, the psychiatrist said. 

"Being picked on because of his disability is something that occurred throughout his childhood," Westphal said. 

"It’s one of the things he's identified in as much he's identified a causal reason for his actions."

Last week, Westphal refused to testify if court didn't seal his videotaped interviews with Minassian and play the clips to court in secret. 

The judge gave in to sealing the videos after the psychiatrist warned they could incite more violence, but will allow journalists to watch them. 

Minassian has admitted to planning and carrying out the attacks. His state of mind at the time is the sole issue at trial.

Westphal's testimony will continue tomorrow.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 30, 2020.

Liam Casey, The Canadian Press