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‘I want him to see the pain’: Virtual trial for accused Toronto van attacker means no day in court for victims

The trial of Alek Minassian, the man accused of committing one of Canada’s worst instances of mass violence when he drove a van into pedestrians on Toronto’s Yonge Street, killing 10 and injuring 16, begins today under pandemic restrictions that will see the much-anticipated proceeding conducted entirely online.

The Ontario Superior Court justice, lawyers, witnesses and the accused will all participate in the trial via Zoom videoconferencing software from separate locations.

Minassian is charged with 10 counts of first degree murder and 16 counts of attempted murder in connection with the van attack.

The feed will also be open to victims and their families. Registered journalists will be allowed to watch the trial on a second Zoom platform while members of the public may attend the Metro Toronto Convention Centre and watch in screening rooms.

They are extraordinary circumstances for a trial that will probe a tragedy that left survivors and families of victims traumatized.

Police allege that on the afternoon of April 23, 2018, Minassian drove a rented van down Yonge Street near Finch Ave. in the city’s midtown, veering onto the busy sidewalk and hitting one person after another. After a brief standoff with police, Minassian was arrested.

Michael Smith’s mother, Beverly Smith, was seriously injured in the van attack. The trial of Alek Minassian, the man accused of carrying it out, begins in the Ontario Superior Court of Justice Tuesday. The trial will be conducted virtually because of the pandemic. (Jared Thomas/CBC)

Trial to assess whether Minassian is criminally responsible

Whether or not Minassian killed and attempted to kill his victims is not in doubt. The now 28 year-old admitted it to police shortly after his arrest, telling them his rampage was a mission for the incel movement, an online subculture of involuntarily celibate men.

The focus of the judge-alone trial will be on Minassian’s state of mind around the time of the attack and whether or not he is criminally responsible for it. Expert witnesses, such as psychologists who have examined him, are likely to testify to Minassian’s mental state.

Individuals who encountered Minassian in the attack’s aftermath may also be called, such as Toronto Police Cst. Ken Lam, who apprehended him.

Minassian has been in custody ever since Lam handcuffed him on Poyntz Ave., just minutes after the first victim was struck. The COVID-19 related restrictions on court proceedings mean he will watch his trial on a screen from the Toronto South Detention Centre.

On that screen, Minassian will see and hear Superior Court Justice Anne Molloy, Crown prosecutor Joseph Callaghan, his own lawyer, Boris Bytensky, and the trial witnesses.

alek minassian
Minassian, now 28, confessed to police shortly after his arrest that he carried out the attack, telling them his rampage was a mission for the incel movement, a subculture of involuntarily celibate men. (LinkedIn)

It’s who Minassian won’t see that’s bothering Elwood Delaney. His grandmother, Dorothy Sewell, 80, was killed in the attack.

In a traditional courtroom, victims and their family members will often come face to face with the accused. Minassian will avoid that in the virtual setting.

“I want him to see the pain in their faces as they sit there in the courtroom watching him,” Delaney told CBC News. “The fact that he won’t —  I think for a lot of us, it’s almost that we don’t get to see him go through that.”

WATCH | Who were the victim sof the Toronto van attack:

Tuesday marks the one-year anniversary of the deadly Toronto van attack, which left 10 people dead and several others injured. Here’s how friends and family are remembering the victims. 3:58

Some families will watch from convention centre

The family of at least one of the victims wants more of a connection with the trial than the Zoom feed offers, at least on the first day.

Nick D’Amico, whose sister Anne Marie D’Amico was killed in the attack, will be attending the convention centre with other family members today.

“We felt being there on the first day was appropriate,” D’Amico told CBC News.

nick d amico
Nick D’Amico, Anne Marie’s brother, was among those who viewed the video of what Minassian told police that night.  (CBC )

The unique nature of the trial is creating even more uncertainty for the D’Amico family as it prepares.

“We don’t know how this is going to look,” D’Amico said. “We don’t know how we’re going to feel. We don’t know, especially with the virtual setting, how it’s all going to play out for us emotionally.”

Along with families of the deceased, surviving victims also have the option of watching the trial remotely or attending the convention centre.

Beverly Smith had both of her legs amputated as a result of injuries suffered in the attack. She’ll be watching the trial on the virtual feed, according to her son, Michael Smith.

beverly smith
Toronto van attack survivor Beverly Smith lost both her legs. (Albert Leung/CBC)

“Being on Zoom, there’s all this technology that she has to sort of get her head around,” Smith told CBC News.

He says his mother wants to move on from the life-altering attack and hopes the trial will help her do that.

“It’ll be good for closure, sort of turn the page,” Smith said. “If you ask my mom, she’d probably be more concerned about Alex Trebek (the beloved game show host who died Sunday) than Alek Minassian right now.”

Lawyer Darcy Merkur is representing several victims and their families in civil lawsuits, including Ryerson University instructor Amir Kiumarsi. Merkur says Kiumarsi suffered a traumatic brain injury and will not follow the trial from home.

“I don’t think there will be a big turnout for the most seriously injured to attend anywhere in person,” Merkur said. “It’s something they want to experience in isolation wherever possible, with their families.”

The trial is scheduled to last for six weeks.

WATCH | Minassian reveals details of the attack to police:

van attack minassian intvu swain 270919

Hours after his arrest, Alek Minassian told a Toronto police detective he communicated with two mass murderers motivated by incel ideology and said the massacres they carried out inspired him to use a rented van “as a weapon.” 2:30

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