Minassian decision opens door for verdict of not criminally responsible due to autism

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TORONTO — The judge who found Alek Minassian guilty of murder and attempted murder in the Toronto van attack has set Canadian precedent by considering autism a “mental disorder” under the Criminal Code.

Justice Anne Molloy ruled that autism did not leave the 28-year-old not criminally responsible for killing 10 people and injuring 16 others, but her decision to consider that possibility means the argument could be made in future cases.

Molloy noted, however, that the decision does not “say anything at all about any connection between ASD and criminality,” and each case must be decided based on the specific circumstances.

The only other Canadian case that had argued someone was not criminally responsible due to autism was appealed, and Molloy said the appeal judge did not rule on whether autism left the accused criminally responsible.

Molloy ruled that autism is a mental disorder by the Criminal Code’s definition because it is a permanent condition with an “internal cause, rooted in the brain” that “has an impact on brain functioning and thought processes.”

“In its severe manifestations, and particularly where there are comorbidities, ASD might cause a person to lack the capacity to appreciate the nature of an action or to know that it is wrong,” she wrote, underlining the word “might” in the decision.

“It is not possible to rule out ASD at this threshold stage by holding that it cannot ever qualify as a mental disorder under (the Criminal Code.)”

Molloy said that autism can affect a person’s ability to empathize with others or understand their emotions, but rejected the defence’s argument that Minassian’s lack of empathy for his victims left him not criminally responsible.

She said Minassian understood that mass murder is morally wrong by society’s standards, and that he knew the consequences of his actions, leaving him criminally responsible for the killings.

Nicole Thompson, The Canadian Press