By Pauline Kerr
In a way, the trial of Alek Minassian for the murder of 10 people also put the entire autism community on trial.
The young man who used a van to brutally mow down dozens of people, mostly women, killing 10 and injuring 16, readily admitted his guilt. It appears he followed an online cult of misogynistic malcontents known as incels – involuntary celibates – guys who are mad at the world because women refuse to date them (women prefer men who treat them like people, not sexual commodities, a point totally lost on incels). He is not the first of this nasty group to go on a killing rampage, and he is unlikely to be the last.
What makes this case different is, first of all, he survived. Most of his ilk try to go out in a blaze of gunfire – suicide by cop, a final chance for their five minutes of fame, call it what you will. The second difference is his defence – not criminally responsible by reason of autism.
Minassian’s defence team claimed that while he was able to plan and carry out the attack, having autism spectrum disorder meant he lacked the empathy to understand the true horror of his actions.
The killer was found guilty on all counts. The judge stated it was clear he had planned the killings – he regarded it as an incel mission – for weeks, and had been thinking about doing such an act for years. It was also clear he understood exactly what he was doing.
In other words, the fact he is on the autism spectrum is incidental – he is a killer who has autism, not someone who kills because of autism.
The judge’s decision was gratifying to the autism community who found the defence argument disturbing to the extreme.
However welcome the decision, it will not erase the damage done by the defence. The argument failed this time around, but it will be tried again, and the autism community will suffer the consequences.
It is not the weirdest legal defence ever attempted. The prize for that would have to go to the lawyer who came up with the “affluenza” argument. The defence claimed a 16-year-old drunk driver whose actions in 2013 resulted in deaths and injuries was too spoiled to understand the seriousness of his actions. At last count the “affluenza” guy was back in jail, having violated a court order to stay sober and drug-free.
The “crime of passion” argument was once a popular way for a homicidally jealous lover to avoid the noose.
An insanity plea has been a favourite for killers facing certain conviction. A recent Netflix series on Peter Sutcliffe, dubbed the Yorkshire Ripper, stated the man got himself diagnosed with schizophrenia so he would be sent to a mental hospital instead of jail. Sutcliffe died of COVID in November.
Our legal system is based on a number of basic principles, one of them being that everyone, guilty or innocent, has a right to a defence.
The defence in the Minassian trial was doing its job. Unfortunately, it meant throwing the autism community under the bus and undoing years of hard work in trying to end the stigma against those with the condition.
The defence, while legally valid, did an injustice to an innocent group of people who are much more likely to be victims of violence than commit violent crimes.
Most people on the autism spectrum are actually pretty normal, depending on one’s definition of normal and where the person falls on the spectrum. They might be awkward in social interactions, or have the odd twitch, but they are not people to be feared.
Those who call themselves incels are very much to be feared. They deserve to be treated the same as any other group advocating murder and mayhem. In other words, shut them down. Get them off the Internet.
The people who need online platforms to explain who they are and to advocate for opportunities and fair treatment are those on the autism spectrum.