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‘This is going to be the hardest part’: On Monday, Toronto will hear from dozens of van attack victims, their families


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‘This is going to be the hardest part’: On Monday, Toronto will hear from dozens of van attack victims, their families

One of Canada’s worst mass murderers will finally receive his fate, but not before a Toronto court hears dozens of people share what their lives have been like as a result of the devastating attack on April 23, 2018.

It’s been 15 months since Superior Court Justice Anne Molloy found Alek Minassian guilty of 10 counts of first-degree murder and 16 counts of attempted murder for “mowing down pedestrians in his path” as he drove a rented van down Yonge Street on that sunny afternoon.

He continued his 2.57-kilometre rampage until a pedestrian’s cup of coffee spilled across his windshield, obscuring his view. In her decision, Molloy referred to him only as “John Doe” — an attempt to deny him the fame he craved.

The key issue at the judge-alone trial was Minassian’s state of mind. Molloy ultimately rejected the defence that he was not criminally responsible. “He was fully aware of what he was doing when driving the car down the sidewalk,” Molloy wrote. While he is autistic, that didn’t hinder his ability to know his actions were morally wrong, she found.

“His attack on these 26 victims that day was an act of a reasoning mind, notwithstanding its horrific nature, and notwithstanding that he has no remorse for it and no empathy for his victims.”

Minassian’s sentencing hearings are set to begin Monday at 10 a.m. inside downtown Toronto’s Superior Court. The proceedings, which are booked for a week, will fill courtroom 6-1, the largest in the building where the Paul Bernardo murder trial was held 27 years ago. Additional security measures are being taken, with seating reserved for family of the victims and survivors with a “very limited” space reserved for reporters. There will also be some unreserved space for media and the general public.

Those connected to the case are bracing for the reading of three dozen victim impact statements, possibly over several days. The order of speakers: community representatives, civilians who offered first aid before medics and police arrived, first responders, injured victims and the families of the dead.

“This is going to be the hardest part, I think, of the entire trial, listening to the horror being repeated, peoples’ hearts being poured out to a person who apparently doesn’t give a damn,” said Cathy Riddell, 71. She continues to recover four years after the van slammed into her from behind, leaving her with a fractured spine, broken scapula and pelvis — among other injuries.

She is, however, looking forward to meeting others connected by their experience of the attack, an opportunity that had so far been denied because Minassian’s trial was held by Zoom during the pandemic, with participants watching from different locations.

The sentencing hearings had been delayed pending the outcome of a Supreme Court of Canada case involving Alexandre Bissonnette, the man who fatally shot six people inside a Quebec City mosque in 2017. Late last month, the high court unanimously struck down a 2011 law that allowed judges to impose consecutive 25-year periods of parole ineligibility in cases of multiple first-degree murders — such as Bissonnette. That was cruel and incompatible with our system of justice, the court found.

Bissonnette can now seek parole after serving 25 years behind bars.

So, too, can Minassian.

Prosecutors can no longer ask the judge to order that he serve 25 years of parole ineligibility for each of the 10 murders — up to an implausible 250 years in prison — before being afforded his first parole hearing. Instead, he can apply to the parole board after serving 25 years, as the 29-year-old closes in on his 50s.

For Riddell, that’s a slap in the face to murder victims and their families. “He should get real life, not just 25 years and the possibility of parole.”

Supporters of the Bissonnette ruling urge the public — including people whose lives have been permanently scarred by mass killers — to not assume the prison doors are about to swing open.

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While the pain of victims is “immeasurable and permanent,” that devastation will also play “a large part in the assessment of whether parole will be granted, if ever,” Toronto defence lawyer Ravin Pillay, who is not connected with the Minassian case, wrote in an email.

“The primary consideration in determining whether parole is appropriate is the protection of the public,” he wrote. The parole board considers “the gravity of the offences, their number, their severity, their impact on society, and the impact of parole on the family members of victims.”

He added: Few violent offenders who apply for parole at first opportunity are successful.

(In 2018, Pillay asked a judge to reject a Crown request that his client, Dellen Millard, receive another 25-year period of parole ineligibility for killing his father, tacked onto the 50 years he had already received for killing Tim Bosma and Laura Babcock. The judge turned him down. Pillay would not comment on the impact of the Supreme Court decision on Millard’s prison sentence.)

Riddell said she’s aware that, at least today, the chance Minassian ever leaves prison is remote. But she wonders what might happen if the politics around the prison system change between now and then — and she’s disgusted with the fact that when and if he applies for parole, “we have to go through this process every 25 years; if it isn’t me, my goddaughters.”

She asks: “Why does the family have to keep going through that agony?”

Kingston-based lawyer Simon Borys, who specializes in parole and correctional law, has an answer to that. The parole process gives victims the chance to “have their voice heard,” if they choose. But even if a victim declines — preferring to forgo reliving their pain at repeated parole hearings — board members will still have the victim impact statements they filed or read out in court at hearings like those this week in Toronto, he explained.

As a former police officer in Waterloo, Borys said he’s sensitive to victims and their trauma. But that harm “can’t be sufficient to offset a person’s right to apply for parole, or undermine the foundational principle of rehabilitation, which is that nobody is beyond hope.”

Minassian, who will turn 30 this fall, has been held in custody at Toronto’s South Detention Centre since his arrest that April afternoon.

One unknown at the upcoming hearing is whether Minassian will accept the judge’s offer — a normal part of the sentencing process — to address court before she imposes his mandatory life sentence. His lawyer, Boris Bytensky, declined to comment.

Minassian did not testify at the trial. But the court heard his voice in hours of interviews he gave to police and doctors, where he spoke of his loneliness, Bible reading and fascination with mass murders and the hateful “incel” movement, made up of men who blame women for their feelings of rejection.

Asked by one doctor what he would say to survivors of the attack if given an opportunity, Minassian responded that he doubted they would be receptive to anything he had to say.

Pressed further by the doctor, Minassian said he would tell them he was isolated and bitter at society, that he felt left out and without friends and that he wanted to achieve some notoriety and approval. He also acknowledged what he did was stupid and did not make him powerful, but rather that he was weak compared to the victims and their families.

At the conclusion of the hearing, Minassian will be heading to a federal penitentiary.

Betsy Powell is a Toronto-based reporter covering crime and courts for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @powellbetsy

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