Toronto van attack verdict to be livestreamed on YouTube in online end to virtual mass murder trial

For such an important and significant case, one with lasting impact, to be held remotely under the shadow of the pandemic was a remarkable achievement

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The verdict on whether Alek Minassian is guilty of mass murder for the Toronto van attack or is he not criminally responsible because of mental deficits from his autism will be broadcast live on YouTube, Wednesday.

Justice Anne Molloy reserved her decision in December at the close of the six weeks of evidence and argument, held entirely online on Zoom due to COVID-19 restrictions.

Minassian, 28, pleaded not guilty to the worst charge sheet ever read into the record of a court in Ontario — 10 counts of first-degree murder and 16 counts of attempted murder — even though he admits he rented a van and purposely drove into as many pedestrians as he could on April 23, 2018.

He claims he is not criminally responsible because of his mental state.

Molloy previously described it as a “one-issue case,” that being Minassian’s state of mind and whether his autism made him incapable of knowing what he was doing was wrong.

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Neither of the lawyers or the judge could find a previous case in Canada where a not-criminally responsible defence was tested in court based on an autism diagnosis. Outside of court, autism groups decried the defence position, saying people with autism are not violent and are more often victims than perpetrators.

Minassian underwent several psychiatric assessments after his arrest, and court heard testimony from four psychiatrists and a psychologist. Molloy is expected to have parsed their reports and their answers to hard questioning during the doctors’ testimony at trial.

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The uniqueness of the trial is matched by the unusualness of how it was run. A verdict delivered on YouTube seems an appropriate coda to a trial held entirely online.

For such an important and significant case, one with lasting impact on a wide pool of victims, and, indirectly, on a city and beyond, to be held remotely under the shadow of the pandemic was a remarkable achievement.

“Minassian is a perfectly good example of how we’ve made do with the circumstances — a trial of that level of seriousness that was done remotely,” said John Struthers, president of the Criminal Lawyers Association.

“Through the co-operation of defence lawyers, Crown attorneys, the judiciary and court staff we’ve managed to make it work.

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“The fact that it is working, as well as it is, is miraculous, frankly.”

COVID-19 messed most things up, including the court system, when courthouses were in lockdown or required restricted access. In response, the court turned to technology it had been reluctant to embrace.

“It has been a deluge of changes, massive changes. We’ve done things in the past year that they’ve been attempting to do for 20 years,” said Struthers.

“This has been an all-hands-on-deck fire drill for the past year to try to turn this system from a Victorian, antediluvian, paper-based system. The fax was a modern invention still just a year ago.”

A screengrab of Alek Minassian’s booking video.
A screengrab of Alek Minassian’s booking video. Photo by Toronto Police Service

And now we have a verdict in a mass murder trial publicly live streamed.

“The changes have been radical, they’ve been swift, and they’ve been effective, because the criminal justice system would have collapsed in its entirety without them,” Struthers said.

The hope is the good remains after COVID is in check, although damage will be felt as well.

COVID made holding jury trials difficult and often impossible, depending on the jurisdiction. For the Minassian trial, for example, if it had been before a jury, it would have required a pool of hundreds of potential jurors to find 12 suitable ones, because of the magnitude of the trauma the attack caused. Minassian opted to be tired by judge alone, making it easier for everyone.

The backlog of cases is significant, particularly in the busiest courts in the country.

COVID has also hampered interaction between lawyers and clients in jail. Inmates are often not brought into court for hearings, where lawyers speak with them in person. Without jail visitations, the limited phone access makes it difficult, Struthers said.

At a hearing last month at the Ontario Court of Justice, a Crown attorney explained to Judge Russell Silverstein that he had forwarded the Zoom link to a reporter who had asked for it, when explaining who an observer was in an otherwise small Zoom conference.

“That’s fine, it’s an open court,” Silverstein said. “Whoever can figure out how to join us, is welcome to join us,” he said.

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It was surely meant as a welcoming statement on the importance of having open and public courts, but it also underscored one of the problems of courts under COVID.

Access can be easy when someone has a video link, but there is nothing in place making it easy for the public. There is no electronic replacement for wandering a courthouse, popping into a courtroom to monitor what is going on.

“We still have to do better,” said Struthers.

The verdict in Minassian’s case is scheduled for Wednesday at 10 a.m. at the link: https://youtu.be/oEWxUDpX4TU.

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