TORONTO – One fine spring day, Cathy Riddell was on her way to the public library when she was slammed by a van on the sidewalk.
Her body blew up and fell on a bus shelter, with glass “raining down on her,” a prosecutor said at the opening trial of Toronto’s worst mass murder, which left 10 dead, 16 injured and one city in despair.
Ms. Riddell, who is largely blind, sustained more than 20 injuries in the 2018 attack, including severe brain trauma that completely erased the incident from her memory.
It was only on the first day of the court, five months after her last physical therapy, that she finally understood what had happened.
“I got a real shock,” said the now 70-year-old retired financial analyst. “It tore my heart out to hear what people went through – people pulled under the vehicle and thrown against walls.”
When criminal proceedings against the man who drove the van began earlier this month, many hoped the attack would finally stop, shocking a country where mass murders are still relatively rare. At least some hoped to understand why Alek Minassian, who had just graduated from college, decided to kill so many strangers along the main street of the city before attempting “police suicide” by pretending to being 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 life and mental state of the accused.
However, it occurs at Zoom due to the coronavirus pandemic, so none of the victims or their survivors can face the killer. And the now 28-year-old defendant has not made himself criminally responsible – what was previously known as the “insane defense”. If this were proven, he would be sent to a mental health facility for treatment, not jail.
The defendant’s attorneys have made the rare argument that he could not understand that the murders were morally wrong because he has an autism spectrum disorder, a condition not usually associated with violent attacks.
“I don’t see anyone trying to pass the responsibility on like this,” said Jesse James, a community organizer who helped plan the vigils and marches following the attack. “It will take our sadness, grief, and sense of horror to whole new levels and, in some ways, deepen it.”
The tragedy was the first time many in Toronto heard the term “incel” or “involuntary celibacy,” a self-claimed label for men who accuse women of denying them sex. Minutes before he hit the sidewalk, the van driver posted a tribute to the late misogynist leader Elliot Rodger on his Facebook account, stating, “The Incel Rebellion has already begun!”
The attack occurred in Toronto’s dense northern pocket, which has transformed in recent decades from a sleepy, mostly white suburb to a canyon of towering condos with new immigrants.
More than $ 2.6 million in donations went to a fund for the victims and their families, which ranged from two Korean students to a Jordanian senior visiting his grandchildren. Eight were women.
More than two years later, the city is hit by another emergency. Many of the store fronts and small Korean restaurants lining the wide sidewalks are closed due to rising coronavirus numbers. There are few physical memories of the attack other than two temporary plaques reminding of the victims along the 1.5 mile deadly route.
The trial began with new graphical details that were accepted as fact by the defendant. He faces 10 first degree murders and 16 attempted murders: he drove the van up to 29 mph and threw victims up to 26 feet in the air. One was hit so hard that his socks fell off. The bodies of others were wrapped around his windshield and pulled under the vehicle – one for 500 feet.
The surviving victims suffered traumatic injuries – spinal fractures, bleeding brains, broken ribs and hips, and in one case leg amputations.
In an interview with a police officer, taped and shown in court hours after his arrest, the defendant said he had hated women since he “tried to get in touch” with some girls at a Halloween party five years earlier , and “They laughed at me and instead held the ugly boys’ arms. “
Afterwards he was radicalized in online incel chat groups. He had made a plan a month before the Toronto attack and thought, “I would inspire future masses to join me in my uprising too.”
At no point did he show any emotion during the four-hour interview. He spoke clearly of using the 10-foot van “as a weapon” and hitting people who were “no longer alive as a result”. Towards the end he said, “I feel like I’ve accomplished my mission.”
At the center of the process is Autism Spectrum Disorder, which Mr. Minassian was diagnosed with when he was 5 years old. At a court hearing, his father Vahe described how he could focus on things like math that interested him, but found social interactions, especially with women, are difficult.
He called his son “gentle” and “happy” with no violent past.
Since the day of the attack, Vahe Minassian said in court, crying, that he and his wife had wondered, “What possible signs could there have been that we might have missed?” He added: “To date we have no answer.”
Non-criminal findings are uncommon in Canada. The vast majority relate to episodes of psychotic spectrum disorders or mood disorders. Mental health law experts are closely monitoring the process and viewing the defense as “unusual, if not unprecedented,” said Anita Szigeti, a Toronto criminal defense attorney.
“Autism isn’t usually associated with an inability to tell right from wrong,” she said. “Everyone thinks it’s an uphill battle.”
Organizations representing Canadians with autism have denounced the legal argument as dangerous and false.
Ms. Riddell said it would take a long time to convince her that Mr. Minassian’s condition did not hold him criminally responsible. Since the beginning of the trial, she has arrived at the courthouse with her wanderer every day to watch what is happening on a screen, so as not to be alone.
Ms. Riddell, a former Paralympian who won two silver medals for cross-country skiing at the 1986 World Cup for Disabled Skiers, spent two months in hospital following the attack, followed by two years of physical therapy and counseling.
She is disappointed in not having a chance to confront Mr. Minassian face to face. “I want him to see me for a real person,” she said. “I want him to see us all as real people with real life, and we have suffered immensely.”
However, others have found unexpected consolation in the virtual aspect of the study.
Tiffany Jefkins was having lunch on the lawn in the public square across from her apartment building when the van pulled by. As a first aid instructor, Ms. Jefkins rushed to three victims, performed CPR, and trained other bystanders to follow suit.
On the first day of the trial, when she was sitting on her comfortable couch with her phone close by asking friends for assistance, she learned that one of these victims had survived.
“I grabbed a pen and wrote down her name,” said Ms. Jefkins, who is currently doing a postdoctoral thesis on the experience of non-professionals helping with cardiac arrest emergencies.
“That was really encouraging,” she said. “Perhaps our efforts have had positive results for these people.”