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'His goal was to be remembered forever:' psychiatrist says of van attack killer

The Canadian Press logo The Canadian Press 2020-12-10
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TORONTO — The man who killed 10 pedestrians by driving a van on a Toronto sidewalk believed he would fail in life and wanted to make his mark on the world with a large-scale attack, court heard Thursday.

Testifying for the prosecution, Dr. Scott Woodside, a forensic psychiatrist at Toronto's Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, said Minassian told him he thought he would fail at his upcoming job and, ultimately, become a failure. 

"I wasn't going to get anywhere," Woodside recalled Minassian telling him during one of four meetings the pair had in the fall of 2019.

Woodside testified that Minassian struggled with loneliness and told him that he might have delayed the attack had he been able to finally have a relationship with a woman. That never happened.

Minassian has pleaded not guilty to 10 counts of first-degree murder and 16 counts of attempted murder.

His state of mind is the sole issue at trial since he has admitted to planning and carrying out the April 23, 2018, attack.

The defence argues Minassian should be found not criminally responsible for his actions due to autism spectrum disorder.

By late March of 2018, the 28-year-old from Richmond Hill, Ont., decided to rent a truck to be used as a weapon after studying "vehicle-ramming" attacks in Europe, Woodside said.

The allure of infamy was one of his main motivators, Woodside said.

"His goal was to be remembered forever," he told court, which is being held by videoconference due to the pandemic.

Minassian has been described by various psychiatrists and psychologists as being highly intelligent with immense social struggles, largely due to autism spectrum disorder.

"He's someone who would have recognized his life trajectory was not following exactly the same trajectory as people without autism spectrum disorder," Woodside testified.

"I think that intellect would, unfortunately, make him acutely aware of things he was missing out on."

Woodside said while Minassian never had a relationship with a woman, it wasn't his sole focus.

He recalled Minassian telling him “I was a little sad I didn't have a girlfriend, but it wasn’t crippling that I couldn't function."

Woodside also said Minassian was insightful, which is the opposite picture that has been painted by defence-retained experts at trial. 

He said Minassian told him “I don't think I was mentally ill at the time, to be honest."

But, Woodside added, "he did also indicate if he was mentally ill, he may not have noticed it."

"That's pretty insightful," Woodside said. 

Court has heard that Minassian told various doctors that he long fantasized about school shootings, which helped him work through his anger, especially in high school when he was bullied. 

He thought about shooting up his school and killing those who verbally hurt him, but decided against it, in part, because he didn't know how to get a gun. 

By 2018, he still didn't know how to get a gun, Woodside said, so he turned to the van. 

Woodside said Minassian told him he knew killing was morally wrong. He said Minassian's autism spectrum disorder did not affect his knowledge of right from wrong.

"I may describe him as a mass murderer who has autism spectrum disorder," Woodside said. 

"He happened to have autism spectrum disorder, not that it drove him to do this thing."

Dr. Alexander Westphal, a forensic psychiatrist who testified for the defence, said Minassian does not understand the moral wrongfulness of killing 10 people. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 10, 2020.

Liam Casey, The Canadian Press

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