TORONTO — A Toronto court filled with victims, relatives and others to tell the city’s worst killer how he had ruined their lives — breaking bones, injuring brains and dragging loved ones to death — when he steered a van onto a sidewalk and plowed through pedestrians, transforming the city’s main street into a horrific crime scene four years ago.
When it was over, Justice Anne Molloy looked at the defendant, who was convicted last year of 10 counts of first degree murder and six counts of attempted murder, and sentenced him on Monday to all she could — life in prison, which in Canada now means an inmate can apply for parole after 25 years.
Canada has no death penalty. The last people executed were hanged in Toronto in 1962, and the punishment was abolished in 1976.
Until recently, multiple murderers could be sentenced to consecutive terms without the option of parole — stacking up one life sentence upon another, effectively meaning that most offenders would die behind bars. Such sentences have been imposed on a small number of inmates, all of them since 2011.
But Canada’s Supreme Court changed that last month, ruling unanimously that the law was “degrading” and unconstitutional, amounting to cruel and unusual punishment, and requiring a parole option after 25 years.
The Toronto attack, among the bloodiest in Canadian history, stunned the country, leaving 10 people dead and 16 hurt, including one who died of her injuries last year. The sentencing of the killer, Alek Minassian, has amplified a national debate over when and how to leave open the possibility of rehabilitation in the criminal justice system.
The Supreme Court, in its decision, pointed to the contrast between Canada and the “more restrictive approach to parole access” in the United States. Alaska is the only state that does not allow a sentence of life without the possibility of parole, according to a 2021 report by the Sentencing Project, a nonprofit based in Washington.
“Within systems that share the same broad cultural and historic commitments, the United States is the outlier as being remarkably harsh,” said Palma Paciocco, an assistant professor at York University’s Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto.
“One of the core commitments that our system makes is that we don’t categorically and preemptively say that people are absolutely beyond any kind of hope of rehabilitation,” she added.
Still, Ms. Paciocco said, inmates may be eligible for parole in theory, but those convicted of the most brutal crimes are likely to be denied release.
One group, the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, called the Supreme Court’s decision a “disappointing outcome,” and said the organization supports a revision of the criminal code to allow trial judges the discretion to extend the amount of time offenders must serve before being eligible for parole.
“It’s offensive, in my view, that for these offenders, parole ineligibility isn’t affected at all by how many people they kill,” said Tim Danson, a lawyer who had represented relatives of victims of a serial killer.
The sentencing on Monday in the Toronto mass murder was one of the first cases to fall under the high court’s parole ruling.
Justice Molloy, who made a point of not naming the defendant, said that her decision does not mean that the killer will not still spend many years in prison.
“All that happens on the 25-year anniversary date of these murders is that the offender can ask the parole board to consider releasing him on parole,’’ she said.
That did not, however, satisfy Cathy Riddell, one of the people injured in the attack.
“Twenty-five years is a long time, but you know what? A lifetime of pain and suffering or losing your child at a very young age, that’s a long time too,” said Ms. Riddell, who sustained more than 20 injuries, including major brain trauma. “I am not happy with the decision.”
The Toronto killer left a trail of carnage more than a mile long, stopping only after one victim’s coffee splashed onto the windshield, blurring his view. Then he attempted “suicide by cop,” pretending he was armed and yelling at a police officer to shoot him.
An investigation revealed that the defendant had a deep hatred of women and the case was the first time many in Toronto heard the term “incel” — short for involuntary celibate, a self-claimed label for men who blame women for denying them sex.
Eight of those killed were women, and another, Amaresh Tesfamariam, a nurse, was paralyzed and later died after spending three and a half years in a hospital.
The defendant’s six-week trial took place on Zoom because of pandemic restrictions, so the sentencing was the first time many victims and their families sat together in a single courtroom.
Many described the traumatic imprint the rampage had left on them — panic attacks, flashbacks, problems sleeping, lost jobs and broken faith.
“I will sleep in a hospital bed for the rest of my life. I will never read a book again,” Beverly Smith, a retired librarian, wrote in a victim impact statement that was read in court, describing how both her legs were amputated and she suffered the ongoing effects of traumatic brain injuries. “I will struggle to do the simplest tasks like using the washroom and taking a shower. I will struggle with memory loss and get easily confused. I have lost the confidence to travel on my own and I feel like I am a burden to my children.”
So Ra, a college student from South Korea, was walking to a library with her best friend and roommate, Sohe Chung, when both were hit by the van. Almost every bone in her face was broken and she had to spend months in a wheelchair, consuming only liquid food. Ms. Chung was killed.
“When I heard about her death, my whole world crashed down around me,” she wrote in a statement.
Though her hands were tied by the Supreme Court ruling, Justice Molloy said the words offered by the victims still had weight.
“This wasn’t for nothing,” she said during the sentencing. “The fact that I cannot and am not imposing more than the 25-year parole ineligibility does not mean that everything you said was not important. It was very important. I have listened to and read every single word.”
She added, “I recognize that every single one of these lives were precious.”
She ordered copies of the statements to be provided to correctional authorities, which would be “relevant at any future hearing before the parole board.”
The gaunt killer, dressed in a gray suit, declined the judge’s final offer to address the court. He never testified nor was cross-examined during the trial.
Allison Hannaford contributed research.