Prosecution tries to cast doubt on depression, autism diagnoses for accused killer of Muslim family

Crown prosecutor Jennifer Moser stands in the foreground as Nathaniel Veltman, left, confers with his lawyers in the background in this court sketch Sept. 12 in Ontario Superior Court in Windsor. The 22-year-old's trial into the killings of a Muslim family in London in 2021 enters its ninth week of evidence on Monday. (Pam Davies/CBC - image credit)

Warning: This story contains distressing details.

While cross-examining a forensic psychiatrist who diagnosed accused terrorist Nathaniel Veltman with various mental disorders, prosecutor Jennifer Moser tried to cast doubt on the doctor's opinion as the murder-terror trial continued Friday in Windsor, Ont.

Moser also took issue with the science Dr. Julian Gojer used to hypothesize that magic mushrooms played a role in the June 6, 2021 killing of a Muslim family in London.

"Sometimes normal people do horrible things, without any mental disorder behind it at all," Moser said to Gojer.

"Yes. In fact, that's the case most of the time," Gojer agreed.

Gojer, who has more than 30 years of clinical experience, has told the jury he diagnosed the accused with a variety of mental disorders, including complex trauma from childhood, particularly his relationship with his mother, as well as severe depression, autism spectrum disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder and a personality disorder.

He also told the jury it's possible that the after-effects of magic mushrooms leaving Veltman's body could have had an impact on his urges to kill Muslims.

The accused has pleaded not guilty to four counts of first-degree murder and one count of attempted murder, as well as terrorism charges laid because prosecutors believe he was motivated by far-right ideology when he drove into a Muslim family out for an evening walk on June 6, 2021.

Yumnah Afzaal, 15, her parents Madiha Salman, 44, and Salman Afzaal, 46, and family matriarch Talat Afzaal, 74, were killed. A nine-year-old boy survived.

The accused told a detective hours after his surrender and arrest that he had fallen down a rabbit hole of far-right conspiracy theory content online and he was inspired by other mass killers. Police found a manifesto, titled "A White Awakening," on his computer. He was arrested while wearing a white Crusader shirt that he had made at home, as well as body armour and a military helmet.

Attacking diagnoses

Moser's cross-examination had two main parts: attacking both the credibility of the science behind the magic mushroom theory as well as Gojer's diagnoses. The accused took mushrooms about 40 hours before driving into the family, and at trial testified he felt as if he were in a dream-like state.

The accused was at the Royal Ottawa Hospital for about a month in June 2023, being assessed by Gojer as well as social workers and psychiatrists. He was on a low dose of anti-anxiety medication and was not getting counselling, but did not appear to meet the diagnostic criteria for obsessive compulsive disorder, Moser pointed out.

"He had no mania, no compulsions," she said, adding he also didn't appear to be depressed in the weeks leading up to the killings, when he went fishing with friends and off-roading with his brother. "He was working full time. He souped up his truck by putting a grill guard on it. He had enough energy that he wrote a manifesto all through the month of May [2021]," Moser said.

He also doesn't avoid eye contact, and was able to have a 10-month relationship when he was 16 years old and make connections with a psychologist, symptoms that can suggest he doesn't have autism spectrum disorder, she added.

The court only has the accused's word for his mother's mistreatment, Moser suggested.

"You have no collateral information or family history that would support his claim of childhood trauma, other than the words of Mr. Nathaniel Veltman himself... He denied you speaking to any of his five siblings, including his twin sister, or his mother."

Mushroom withdrawal a 'new hypothesis': Crown

During his testimony, Gojer relied on studies of commonly used anti-depressants — called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI), which act on seratonin receptors in the brain — to explain the effect magic mushroom withdrawal could have on a person.

Dr. Julian Gojer is a forensic psychiatrist who is testifying for the defence at the trial of Nathaniel Veltman, 22.
Dr. Julian Gojer is a forensic psychiatrist who is testifying for the defence at the trial of Nathaniel Veltman, 22.

Dr. Julian Gojer is a forensic psychiatrist who is testifying for the defence at Veltman's trial. (Michael Evans/CBC)

"This is a new hypothesis that you're coming up with," Moser told Gojer. "No, I'm using science to explain something," he replied.

The scientific papers Gojer relied on were mainly on SSRIs, Moser pointed out, and not on psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms, because there are few relevant studies.

Gojer's cross-examination will continue on Monday, when the trial enters its ninth week of evidence.