Courts & Trials

Judge Rejects Not Criminally Responsible Plea and Finds Minassian Guilty

Written on behalf of Affleck & Barrison LLP
Justice Anne Molloy of the Ontario Superior Court delivered a verdict last week finding Alek Minassian (“Minassian”) guilty of all 26 counts, including 10 counts of first-degree murder and 16 counts of attempted murder. Minassian admitted that on the afternoon of April 23, 2018 he drove a rented cargo van onto the sidewalk of Yonge Street in North York and deliberately plowed down any pedestrians in his path.  Ten lives were lost as a result of his rampage, and sixteen others suffered traumatic injuries, but survived the attack. Minassian endured a six week trial over Zoom before Justice Molloy late in 2020. Justice Molloy read excerpts of her lengthy decision aloud over YouTube.  She specifically referred to Minassian as “John Doe” in response to the testimony of psychiatrists during the trial that Minassian committed the crimes to attain notoriety. MINASSIAN FOUND CRIMINALLY RESPONSIBLE FOR HIS ACTIONS Justice Molloy found that Minassian had a “functioning, rational brain” and that he took a great deal of time planning the attack and weighing the consequences.  She stated:
At various times during his assessments by various experts, he described his actions as being ‘devastating’, ‘despicable’, ‘shocking’, ‘morally terrible’, ‘ a horrible thing’, and ‘irredeemable’.  … It still demonstrates that he had a functioning rational brain, one that perceived the reality of what he was doing, and knew it was morally wrong by society’s standards, and contrary to everything he had been taught about right and wrong.  He then made a choice. … This was the exercise of free will by a rational brain, capable of choosing between right and wrong.
Justice Molloy found that Minassian unequivocally knew that it was legally wrong to kill people and he knew that he would go to jail if he was arrested for running down and killing people.  It was his objective to gain fame and notoriety from the negative attention of his lethal actions. Justice Molloy, in addressing the NCR defence, stated:
It does not matter that he does not have remorse, nor empathize with the victims.  Lack of empathy for the suffering of victims, even an incapacity to empathize for whatever reason, does not constitute a defence under section 16 of the Criminal Code. …  Everything depends on the particular circumstances of the individual and how they are affected by their disability.
AUTISM SPECTRUM DISORDER DIAGNOSIS DOES QUALIFY AS A MENTAL DISORDER UNDER SECTION 16 OF THE CRIMINAL CODE Minassian’s lawyers argued that he should be found not criminally responsible (“NCR”) for his actions due to his Autism Spectrum Disorder (“ASD”). Under section 16 of the Criminal Code, an individual can be found NCR if they were suffering from a mental disorder that rendered them “incapable of appreciating the nature and quality of the act or omission or of knowing that it was wrong”.  In these circumstances, the onus is on the defence to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt. This case was the first of its kind to use ASD as the sole diagnosis for an NCR defence for murder in Canada.  Minassian’s claim that his ASD diagnosis was grounds for a NCR verdict has been the subject of criticism from autism support groups. Minassian’s lawyer, although admitting that most people with ASD are not violent and are more likely to be a victim than a perpetrator of violence, argued that his client’s ASD diagnosis created “a perfect storm” to “ severely” distort his client’s way of thinking. Psychiatrists who testified on behalf of Minassian found that he lacked empathy, failed to understand the true impact of his actions and was unable to demonstrate remorse. In her judgement, Justice Molloy confirmed that ASD does qualify as a mental disorder under section 16 of the Criminal Code, however she did not accept that it applied to this specific case.  She specifically addressed the concerns that this decision will stigmatize those living with autism.  She stated:
This merely opens the door.  It means that people with ASD are eligible to be considered for a possible defence under this section, in the same manner as people with many other kids of disabilities.
This judgement further confirms that autism is a mental disorder under the Criminal Code and as Justice Molloy found that it is a permanent condition with an “internal cause, rooted in the brain that has an impact on brain functioning and thought processes”. Justice Molloy found that although Minassian may have deficits due to autism, such as social and emotional interactions, he has no cognitive impairment.  She stated:
He chose to commit the crimes anyway, because it is what he wanted to do.  This was the exercise of free will by a rational brain, capable of choosing between right and wrong.  He freely chose the option that was morally wrong, knowing what the consequences would be for himself and everybody else.
Given Justice Molloy’s decision, Minassian will be serving a life sentence in federal prison for the crimes he committed.  The offence of first-degree murder carries with it a mandatory parole ineligibility period of 25 years.  He will appear in court on March 18 for a sentencing hearing to determine when he will be eligible for parole. If you have been charged with a criminal offence or have questions regarding your legal rights, please contact the knowledgeable criminal lawyers at Affleck & Barrison LLP online or at 905-404-1947.  Our skilled criminal defence lawyers have significant experience defending a wide range of criminal charges and protecting our client’s rights.  We offer a free consultation and are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.