Toronto’s Van Killing Case Goes to Trial
Toronto’s Van Killing Case Goes to Trial
TORONTO — On a beautiful spring day, Cathy Riddell was making her way to the public library when she was slammed by a van plowing down the sidewalk.
Her body flew into the air, and crashed down on a bus shelter, with glass “raining down on her,” a prosecutor explained at the opening of the trial on Toronto’s worst mass killing, which left 10 dead, 16 injured and a city despairing.
Ms. Riddell, who is mostly blind, suffered more than 20 injuries in the 2018 attack, including major brain trauma, which completely erased the incident from her memory.
It was only on the first day of court, five months after her last session of physiotherapy, that she finally understood what had happened.
“I got real shock,” said the retired financial analyst, now 70. “It tore my heart out to hear what people went through — people dragged under the vehicle and thrown against walls.”
When the criminal trial of the man who drove the van began earlier this month, many hoped it would finally provide some closure for the attack, which shocked a country where mass killings remain relatively rare. At least some hoped to gain an understanding of why Alek Minassian, who had just graduated from college, decided to kill so many strangers along the city’s main street before attempting “suicide by cop,” by pretending he was armed and yelling at a police officer to shoot him.
The trial has dominated the news, as each day in court offers a fuller picture of the defendant’s life and mental state.
However, it is occurring on Zoom because of the coronavirus pandemic, and so none of the victims or their survivors can come face-to-face with the killer. And the defendant, now 28, has pleaded not criminally responsible — what was once known as the “insanity defense.” If proved, he would be sent to a psychiatric institution for treatment rather than prison.
The defendant’s lawyers have made the rare argument that he was incapable of understanding the murders were wrong from a moral perspective because he has autism spectrum disorder, a condition not usually associated with violent attacks.
“I can’t fathom somebody trying to pass the responsibility off like that,” said Jesse James, a community organizer who helped plan the vigils and marches in the attack’s aftermath. “It’s going to stretch our sadness and sorrow and sense of horror to whole new levels, deepen it in some ways.”
The tragedy was the first time many in Toronto heard the term “incel” or “involuntary celibate,” a self-claimed label for men who blame women for denying them sex. Minutes before driving up on the sidewalk, the van driver posted a tribute to the misogynist movement’s deceased leader, Elliot Rodger, on his Facebook account, and proclaimed, “The Incel Rebellion has already begun!”
The attack occurred in the dense northern pocket of Toronto, which in recent decades has transformed from a sleepy predominately white suburb to a canyon of towering condominiums filled with new immigrants.
More than $2.6 million in donations poured into a fund for the victims and their families, who ranged from two Korean students to a Jordanian senior visiting his grandchildren. Eight were women.
More than two years later, the city is consumed by another emergency, with many of the storefronts and small Korean restaurants that line the wide sidewalks closed because of rising coronavirus numbers. There are few physical reminders of the attack, besides two temporary plaques memorializing the victims along the 1.5 mile deadly route.
The trial opened with new graphic details that were accepted as fact by the defendant, who faces 10 counts of first-degree murder and 16 of attempted murder: He was driving the van up to 29 miles per hour, knocking victims as far as 26 feet in the air. One was hit so hard, his socks fell off. The bodies of others were wrapped around his windshield and dragged under the vehicle — one for 500 feet.
The victims who survived suffered traumatic injuries — spine fractures, bleeding brains, broken ribs and hips, in one case, leg amputations.
In an interview with a police detective, recorded hours after his arrest and shown in court, the defendant said he had hated women ever since he’d “attempted to socialized with some girls” at a Halloween party five years earlier, and “they laughed at me and held the arms of the ugly guys instead.”
Afterward, he said, he had became radicalized on online incel chat groups. He had made a plan a month before the Toronto attack, thinking “I would inspire future masses to join me in my uprising as well.”
At no point during the four-hour interview did he display emotion. He spoke plainly about using the 10-foot-van “as a weapon” and hitting people who “are no longer alive as a result.” Near the end he said, “I feel like I accomplished my mission.”
At the heart of the trial is autism spectrum disorder, which Mr. Minassian was diagnosed with at age 5. At a court hearing, his father, Vahe, described how he could be hyper-focused on things like math that interested him, but found social interactions, particularly with women, difficult.
He called his son “gentle” and “happy” with no history of violence.
Since the day of the attack, Vahe Minassian told the court while weeping, he and his wife had been asking themselves “what possible signs could there have been that we could have possibly missed?” He added, “To this day, we have no answer.”
Not criminally responsible findings are uncommon in Canada; the vast majority relate to episodes of psychotic spectrum disorder or mood disorders. Experts in mental disorder law are watching the trial closely and consider the defense “unusual if not unprecedented,” said Anita Szigeti, a criminal lawyer in Toronto.
“Autism is not normally linked to the inability to know right from wrong,” she said. “Everyone thinks it’s an uphill battle.”
Ms. Riddell said it would take a lot to convince her Mr. Minassian’s condition made him not criminally responsible. Every day since the trial began, she has arrived to the courthouse with her walker to watch the proceedings on a screen, in order simply to not be alone.
A former Paralympian who won two silver medals for cross-country skiing at the World Disabled Ski Championship in 1986, Ms. Riddell spent two months in the hospital after the attack, followed by two years of physical therapy and counseling.
She is disappointed to not get a chance to confront Mr. Minassian, face-to-face. “I want him to see me as a real person,” she said. “I want him to understand all of us as real people with real lives and we suffered immensely.”
Others, though, have found unexpected comfort from the trial’s virtual aspect.
Tiffany Jefkins was having lunch on the grass of the public square across the street from her condominium building, when the van barreled past. A first aid instructor, Ms. Jefkins rushed to three victims, performing CPR and coaching other bystanders to follow suit.
During the first day of the trial, while sitting on her comfortable couch, with her phone nearby to call friends for support, she learned that one of those victims had survived.
“I grabbed a pen and wrote their name down,” said Ms. Jefkins, who is now working on a postdoctoral thesis on the experience of nonprofessionals assisting in cardiac arrest emergencies.
“That was really heartening,” she said. “Maybe our efforts had positive outcomes for these people.”