The only chance of Alek Minassian not spending the rest of his life in prison rests with a forensic psychiatrist from Yale University set to testify next week.
Dr. Alexander Westphal is the final defence witness and the only one who will argue that Minassian should be found not criminally responsible for the Yonge St. massacre due to his autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
It will be a controversial argument — so controversial that Westphal threatened not to testify if his recorded interviews with Minassian were played over the Zoom webinar being used for the judge-alone trial. Among his reasons was his concern they’d be surreptitiously recorded and used to victimize the autism community, which is ironic, considering he’s the one linking ASD to mass murder.
Ontario Superior Court Justice Anne Molloy angrily called it a “ransom demand” but reluctantly agreed to limit the broadcast of his recorded interview videos — so Westphal may not receive the warmest of Canadian welcomes from Her Honour when he begins his virtual testimony come Monday morning.
There are many others who are none too pleased with the learned autism expert.
Autism Canada released a statement calling his expected testimony “wholly unsubstantiated, merely speculative, and made carelessly without any published evidence proving autism, on its own, is a risk factor for becoming violent against other people.”
Minassian, 28, has pleaded not guilty to the murder of 10 people and the attempted murder of 16 more in the April 23, 2018 van attack.
The onus is on the defence to prove the Richmond Hill man should be found not criminally responsible due to a mental disorder. Though called by Minassian’s lawyer, renowned forensic psychiatrist Dr. John Bradford wouldn’t go that far.
In his opinion, the mass killer wasn’t suffering from psychosis and didn’t fit the conventional finding of NCR.
“It was clear very early on that he was not psychotic,” Bradford said of Minassian.
But while he didn’t agree himself, Bradford suggested an expert in autism may offer a “theoretical” pathway for Minassian to be found NCR through autism spectrum disorder.
That expert, it seems, will be Westphal, a colleague he met while Bradford was a visiting professor at Yale. He’s expected to testify that Minassian’s “autistic way of thinking” was “similar to psychosis.”
The controversial link, if any, between ASD and violence has been studied for at least two decades and first became the subject of public attention after the killer behind the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School was identified as someone with Asperger’s.
Experts, as well as Adam Lanza’s father, have discounted the link.
“The evidence connecting Asperger’s to crimes like this is essentially zero,” Canadian psychologist Dr. Frank Farley at Philadelphia’s Temple University told the media at the time.
Lanza was one of Minassian’s research subjects.
Diagnosed with autism at age five, Minassian would later tell doctors his fascination with mass murder began in 2008 and he was especially drawn to the murderers who, like him, were on the spectrum.
There have been a few.
A 2016 study looked at 75 mass shooter cases and found tentative evidence of ASD in six of them, or 8%, eight times higher than the prevalence of ASD found in the general population. There were also 16 other cases with some indication of ASD.
“Crucially, ASD may influence, but does not cause, an individual to commit extreme violent acts such as a mass shooting episode,” the study concluded.
The killers in the Columbine and Virginia Tech shootings “may” have had autism. There is also speculation that incel heroes Elliot Rodger and Chris Harper-Mercer also had ASD. All dead by suicide, it’s hard to know for sure.
But it’s almost certain ASD wasn’t their only psychiatric diagnosis. Researchers believe they all suffered from a toxic cocktail of mental disorders that led to the violence they inflicted.
Not Minassian, though. He has only his autism to “blame.”