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Families nervous ahead of verdict in Toronto van attack trial

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TORONTO – Some of the Toronto van attack victims and their families are nervously waiting to learn the fate of the man whose deadly rampage three years ago changed their lives forever.

On Wednesday morning, live on YouTube, Justice Anne Molloy will deliver her verdict in the case of Alek Minassian, who deliberately drove a rented van down a crowded Toronto sidewalk on April 23, 2018, killing 10 pedestrians and injured 16 others.

“I’ve been anxious for months, much more so than I thought I’d be,” said Catherine Riddell, 70, who was out for a walk when Minassian’s van hit her from behind.

Minassian has admitted to planning and carrying out the attack, but pleaded not guilty to 10 counts of first-degree murder and 16 counts of attempted murder.

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The 28-year-old from Richmond Hill, Ont., argued at trial that he should be found not criminally responsible for his actions due to autism spectrum disorder. The trial will turn on Minassian’s mindset at the time.

“He’s a mass killer who has autism, that’s it,” said Riddell, who suffered a fractured spine and broken ribs, scapula and pelvis in the attack. She also suffered a minor brain injury and internal bleeding.

“I’m really nervous,” said Robert Forsyth, whose aunt, Betty Forsyth, 94, was killed by Minassian when she was out for a walk on an unusually warm and sunny April day.

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“He’s got to be guilty, right?”

Betty Forsyth, Ji Hun Kim, So He Chung, Geraldine Brady, Chul Min Kang, Anne Marie Victoria D’Amico, Munir Najjar, Dorothy Marie Sewell, Andrea Bradden and Beutis Renuka Amarasingha died in the attack.

The seven-week trial that started in November focused on the inner workings of Minassian’s mind. The prosecution opened with a painstakingly detailed examination of how all 26 people were killed or hurt.

The trial heard that after weeks of planning, Minassian sat in the driver’s seat of his rental van at the intersection of Yonge Street and Finch Avenue in the north end of the city around 1:30 p.m.

When the light turned green, he floored it, hopped the curb and hit a group of pedestrians, killing two.

He drove for about two kilometres on and off the sidewalk as he killed and maimed unsuspecting pedestrians along the way.

Minassian only stopped when one of his victims spilled their drink on his windshield and he worried he’d crash. On a side street he hopped out of the van and tried to get killed by police, “suicide by cop” being part of his plan.

Minassian tried to fool an approaching police officer by pulling his wallet, pretending it was a gun, but it didn’t work.

“I’m a murdering piece of shit,” Minassian told the booking officer shortly thereafter.

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Several hours later Minassian told a detective he committed the attack as retribution against society because he was a lonely virgin who believed women wouldn’t have sex with him.

Later, he told various assessors that the so-called “incel” motive was a ruse, designed to increase his notoriety. He was still a lonely virgin, however, that part was true.

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He went on to tell different doctors different reasons for his attack. He said he had “extreme anxiety” over a new job he was about to start. He also wanted to “set a world record” for kills in order to be atop an online leaderboard of mass killers.

If he accomplished that, then he wouldn’t be viewed as a failure, he told a forensic psychiatrist. Minassian also told them he had a strong desire to commit a mass killing and was infatuated with an American mass murderer.

The central question at trial was whether Minassian knew what he did was morally wrong. The legal test in this case focuses on whether he had the capacity at the time to make a rational choice.

The defence’s star witness, American-based forensic psychiatrist Dr. Alexander Westphal, testified that Minassian’s autism left him without the ability to develop empathy.

Minassian’s lawyer, Boris Bytensky, said that lack of empathy left him incapable of rational choice, and, ultimately, to know what he did was morally wrong.

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The prosecution argued Minassian knew what he did was wrong, in part because he told many of his assessors he knew killing 10 people that day was morally wrong.

Minassian had a decade-long fixation on mass school shootings, the Crown pointed out. That fixation morphed into fantasies of committing a mass shooting at his own high school, where he was picked on.

But he never followed through, in part, because he did not know how to get a gun.

“There’s no evidence he ever lost the fact of the wrongness of his actions,” said Crown attorney Joe Callaghan.

The prosecution’s key witness, forensic psychiatrist Dr. Percy Wright, said Minassian had some empathy and knew what he did was wrong, thereby did not qualify for the test that he was not criminally responsible for his actions.

Renowned forensic psychiatrist, Dr. John Bradford, who has evaluated some of the country’s most notorious killers, said Minassian did not meet the test to be found not criminally responsible.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 2, 2021.

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