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Forensic psychiatrist takes stand for the defense in Minassian van attack trial

Forensic psychiatrist takes stand for the defense in Minassian van attack trial
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Dr. Alexander Westphal, the forensic psychiatrist described in court as Alek Minassian’s one chance at a defence, takes the stand Monday.

Minassian, 28, has admitted to renting a van and speeding along a Yonge Street sidewalk on the , trying to kill as many pedestrians as possible. He killed eight women and two men, injuring 16 more people. He is arguing that he is not criminally responsible for his actions — that his autism spectrum disorder rendered him unable to know what he did was morally wrong.

Such a finding, which would mean Minassian would be sent to a hospital indefinitely rather than prison, would be a legal first in Canada, according to renowned forensic psychiatrist Dr. John Bradford, who assessed Minassian in 2018 and testified for the defence last week.

Bradford said he didn’t think that Minassian met the test to be found not criminally responsible. But, given his limited experience with autism, another expert might think differently, he said. Westphal was one of the psychiatrists Bradford recommended to Minassian’s defence lawyer who specialize in autism spectrum disorder.

Westphal, a Yale professor, has opined that Minassian’s autism could have severely distorted his thinking in a way similar to psychosis.

Both Bradford and Westphal found no indication that Minassian was in a state of psychosis around the time of the van attack, and no evidence that he was having delusions or hallucinations that overpowered his operating mind. That is the most common route to a not criminally responsible finding, Bradford said. Bradford’s assessment also found Minassian had no co-occurring disorders including psychopathy.

Bradford said that a “hypothetical” pathway to a not criminally responsible finding for Minassian based solely on his autism spectrum disorder could lie in his hyper-focus on mass killers or on his lack of empathy. While Bradford noted his lack of expertise with autism, he said he didn’t think hyper-focus could lead to the intensity of a delusion, and therefore would not meet the legal test. He said he didn’t have the knowledge to determine if Minassian’s lack of empathy could have impacted his ability for moral reasoning enough that it could mean he didn’t know what he was doing was morally wrong.

Before Westphal begins giving his evidence, he might hear some sharp words from Superior Court Justice Anne Molloy. After Molloy ruled that the video of interviews Westphal did with Minassian would have to be disclosed to the Crown if he testified, which meant they could become part of the trial, Westphal issued an ultimatum to the court. He would not testify unless the videos were sealed so they could never be published. Because Westphal is based in the U.S., that left Molloy with no timely way to compel him to testify.

Ultimately, in an unprecedented ruling that Molloy described as paying a kidnapper a ransom, she agreed to seal the videos to protect Minassian’s right to a fair trial.
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