Canada

Van attack killer Minassian definitely isn’t faking mental condition, expert tells court

'He would be the best malingerer in the world if he malingered autism from the day he was born. So that’s not even an issue, he’s not malingering that'

While psychiatric opinion at the mass murder trial for the Toronto van attack driver differs over the impact of Alek Minassian’s mental disorder, one thing is certain, a forensic psychiatrist said: he isn’t faking.

It is a concern in some cases where accused killers seek to be found not criminally responsible or, in the old language, not guilty by reason of insanity, by pretending to be mentally disturbed or psychotic by exaggerating or feigning symptoms.

Dr. John Bradford, Canada’s most prominent forensic psychiatrist, testified Friday that this was not an issue with Minassian, who faces 10 counts of first-degree murder and 16 counts of attempted murder.

The word psychiatrists, and the court, use for a person faking mental illness is “malingering.”

“I don’t think malingering is an issue. He’s not malingering,” Bradford said. “He would be the best malingerer in the world if he malingered autism from the day he was born. So that’s not even an issue, he’s not malingering that.”

Autism is the only diagnosed condition relied on by Minassian and his legal team to argue he is not criminally responsible for the attack, in which he planned and then purposely drove a rented van down a busy sidewalk along Yonge St., in Toronto, on April 18, 2018.

Court earlier heard from another psychiatrist who specializes in autism that Minassian was diagnosed at the age of five.

Minassian admits he was the driver and that he planned and deliberately drove onto the sidewalk with intent to kill people. He pleaded not guilty, however, claiming he is not criminally responsible for the attack because his autism prevented him from understanding it was wrong.

That Minassian really is autistic, and the fact that he speaks in an unemotional way as he describes his deadly attack, doesn’t answer the court’s primary question. At issue is whether autism, a condition shared by millions and which is not usually associated with violence, made him incapable of knowing any better. The question has proven a difficult and contentious one.

The rental van used by Minassian in his attack on pedestrians highlights the damage he left in his wake. Photo by Court exhibit

Bradford said that because Minassian is autistic, and not psychotic, he doesn’t think he can be declared not criminally responsible, but said there may be a “hypothetical possibility” of such a verdict based on evidence of other psychiatrists yet to testify.

On Friday, Bradford said Minassian’s case is “unique.”

“It really was quite clear to me that he was not psychotic before, during or after (the attack) — and in none of my 17 or so contacts or hours or so with him was he psychotic,” he said.

“And I realized that, for many reasons, this is a unique case of somebody with no autism co-morbidity, who has carried out a mass homicide and lived, and by his own plan would be deceased. I knew this was going to be unusual.”

Co-morbidity means one condition being simultaneously present alongside another condition. Court earlier heard Minassian’s plan was to provoke police into shooting him after his attack, referred to as “suicide by cop.” A Toronto police officer, however, ignored Minassian’s pleas to be shot and arrested him.

Bradford has examined many of Canada’s most notorious killers over four decades of medical practice, including Paul Bernardo, Robert Pickton, Russell Williams and Luka Magnotta.

He spent a lot of time with Minassian, 28, of Richmond Hill, Ont., in a secure psychiatric facility in Hamilton, observing him, interviewing him, reviewing medical records, and also interviewing Minassian’s parents and older brother.

Alek Minassian is seen in this artist’s impression of an earlier video-link court appearance. Photo by Brice Hall/National Post

While a not-criminally-responsible defence is not uncommon, one that relies solely on autism is. Perhaps as many as 90 per cent of all not-criminally-responsible cases deal with some type of psychosis, often as a symptom of schizophrenia. No other autism case has been argued in court in Canada, court heard, although one youth matter was accepted on the consent of all parties.

A psychotic state, typically shown through hallucinations or delusions, interferes with the normal operating mind of a person, compelling them to commit violent acts.

That doesn’t apply to Minassian. Court has heard no evidence of psychosis and Bradford said there is none.

“I think his flat, emotionally flat, lack of empathy, presentation in what he says, has been, from what I can gather, pretty consistent.”

Psychiatrists have tests to try to filter out malingerers, but there was little or no need to perform them on Minassian, Bradford said.

“The malingering tests are mostly related to people malingering psychosis, and that’s a non-issue here.”

Malingerer tests are not lie detector tests. He said Minassian has lied.

Minassian lied to the police in his four-and-a-half hour interrogation hours after his arrest, Bradford said, when he said his full motivation was to provoke an “incel rebellion” because he followed the ideology of incel (short for involuntarily celibate) and was angry with not being able to have sex with women.

Bradford said Minassian did have a strong interest in incel ideology and was fascinated by U.S. incel mass murderer Elliott Rodger, but was not, himself, angry or filled with rage, as Rodger was.

His primary motivation seemed more likely a quest for notoriety than pushing an incel agenda, Bradford said.

What Minassian’s police interrogation did show, Bardford said, was that he had no signs or symptoms of psychosis soon after the attack.

Bradford finished his testimony Friday. The trial is scheduled to continue on Monday with evidence from a different psychiatric expert.

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