Toronto van attack: What it means if the suspect is found 'Not Criminally Responsible'

Flowers and candles are placed at a memorial for victims of the mass killing on Yonge Street at Finch Avenue on April 24, 2018 in Toronto, Canada.

Toronto is still healing from the April 23 attack that resulted in the death of 10 people when Alek Minassian rammed a van into a crowd of pedestrians at the busy intersection of Yonge and Sheppard.  The 25-year-old was charged with 10 counts of murder and 13 counts of attempted murder. 

In the aftermath of the attack there was plenty of speculation as to why Minassian did what he did, with a popular theory being that he was “mentally ill.”

Toronto Police Services have not made any statements about Minassian’s mental state, but if he is found to be Not Criminally Responsible (NCR), the sentence he will face will be drastically different.

According to CBC, a person is found NCR when it is proved that they did not have the capacity to understand their actions, know right from wrong at the time of the offence or if they were not in control of their behaviour due to their mental illness.

To determine if someone is fit to stand trial, the defence would raise the issue and a forensic assessment would be done.

“Generally that takes 30 to 60 days,” said David Woodbeck, a barrister and solicitor in Kitchener. “A forensic psychiatrist would meet with the accused… They might review medical records and they might seek input from family members.”

The nature of the allegations are also something that are taken into consideration.

“All of those things would factor in to determine whether a forensic psychiatrist thought somebody was potentially Not Criminally Responsible,” said Woodbeck.

But being found NCR is not something that happens regularly, explained Woodbeck.

“Generally speaking, although people can be found Not Criminally Responsible, in cases where the allegations are considerably less serious, because of the potential consequences of being found Not Criminally Responsible – for example, hospitalization in a forensic hospital indefinitely – people don’t raise that issue on relatively minor offenses,” said Woodbeck.

For a crime with the severity of the Toronto van attack, being found NCR would likely be the preferred option.

“Should someone be found guilty of multiple counts of first degree murder, then clearly they’re looking at life in prison,” said Woodbeck. “So clearly in that case it would make a great deal more sense than in shoplifting.”

The public’s perspective of someone being found NCR is not always favourable, likely due to lack of education and stigma around mental health.

“For serious crimes, people are concerned that a person be held accountable for it,” said Woodbeck. “Generally speaking, in the criminal justice system, that is accomplished by lengthy periods of incarceration but when you inject an element of mental health, that adds a level of uncertainty that people are uncomfortable with.”

“People are always concerned that if a person is found Not Criminally Responsible that’s seen as ‘getting away with it’ or ‘getting off’ and thats not really the purpose of mental health provisions in the criminal code,” explained Woodbeck. “If we start from the presumption that we treat mentally ill people differently than perhaps someone that has just committed a criminal act, then there has to be different system in place.”

The public wants an explanation when something of this scale happens, particularly in a city where these kinds of attacks generally don’t happen.

“Certainly in a high-profile case, like the recent case in Toronto, people are quick to jump to why they think someone did what they did, especially in the manner in which this offense occurred as it is one that has happened around the world more than once, so there’s a number of things in play that people are wondering,” said Woodbeck.

“Is it mental illness, is it some issue of ideology, is it a combination of the two? People always want to know why something happened.”