Nathaniel Veltman is 1st defence witness in murder-terror trial into 2021 truck attack
Warning: This story contains disturbing details:
The accused killer of a Muslim family in London, Ont., in 2021 took the witness box in his own defence on Thursday, testifying at his terrorism trial that he had a fundamentalist Christian childhood and was subjected to frequent punishments.
Nathaniel Veltman, 22, is the first witness for the defence in the Ontario Superior Court trial in Windsor that began with proceedings Sept. 11. His lawyer, Christopher Hicks, addressed the jury ahead of the testimony.
Speaking so quietly that he had to be told several times by Justice Renee Pomerance to talk louder so the court could hear him, the accused detailed a childhood on the outskirts of small-town and rural Strathroy. He said he was subject to the strict discipline of his fundamentalist Christian mother, who homeschooled the accused, his twin sister and their four younger siblings.
"We were told that school was a terrible place and there were increasing conflicts as I was growing up," he told jurors. "There was an extreme fear of corruption by the secular world, interactions with other people from the church…. I had to learn to be an expert at hiding my emotions and keeping everything inside."
The accused has pleaded not guilty to four counts of first-degree murder and one count of attempted murder, as well as associated terrorism charges in the June 6, 2021, killings of members of the Afzaal family. Defence and prosecution lawyers agree he drove his Dodge Ram pickup truck into a Muslim family walking on a suburban street in London.
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.
Accused testifies about childhood punishments
Last week, the prosecution wrapped up its case in the trial, which began Sept. 11 and is expected to last eight weeks.
"You will rely on common sense, life experience, your collective wisdom and human logic. It's an exercise best conducted in a rational and dispassionate manner," Hicks said in his opening statement Thursday.
"There are two sides to every story. Presently, you only have the side that the prosecution has advanced. You are not in a position to draw any inferences or come to any conclusions yet."
Veltman testified there was little contact with people outside the family while he was growing up, but there were frequent punishments that included bare-bottom spankings, writing out Bible verses and writing lines. He said he now knows some of the ways he coped with the stress of his childhood are common traits of autism, including making strange noises and chewing the inside of his cheeks until they were "destroyed."
"She didn't know that I had mental issues or that I had autism. She misinterpreted my behaviour as me being disrespectful," he testified about his mom.
While being reprimanded by his mother, words such as "but," "just" and "stop" were forbidden and seen as disrespectful and talking back, which would lead to more punishment.
The accused testified that when he was 10 or 11, he attributed what he called his "antisocial and bizarre" behaviour in childhood as a product of his isolated childhood and "not being properly socialized." He learned about something called obsessive compulsive disorder and thought he might have it.
"I knew there was something wrong with me," he said.
"I was just being tormented that there was something horribly wrong with me. I believed that mental illness was just being the secular world's explanation of being possessed by demons."
Shown pictures of people burning alive in hell at the age of seven and told not to think evil or violent thoughts, he said he became obsessed with not thinking those thoughts, which led to thinking more about them.
"I began to obsess about not thinking about violent and evil things. I was obsessing about it. I was caught in this constant loop. I began to suspect that something was horribly wrong with me, because I'm thinking these things."
He said that when he told his mom there might be something wrong, she told him it was a spiritual problem.
Any contact with people from outside the family was closely monitored, including access to a church youth group, and when the accused was given access to electronics when he was 14 or 15, there was an app installed on the family computer that would set off an alarm if he accessed something that was forbidden, he said.
Defence promises 'compelling evidence'
Also testifying during the defence case will be Dr. Julian Gojer, Hicks said. Gojer is a forensic psychiatrist who will talk about personality disorders, developmental disorders and substance use disorders, including the use of psychedelics and how they affect people.
"Dr. Gojer is qualified to talk about obsessive compulsive disorder, depression, psychosis, complex trauma and other subjects, but most importantly, as you will see, hallucinogenic substances," Hicks told the jury.
"You can believe all, part or none of what he says, but I suggest you will find it compelling evidence."
The Crown has said the killing was a result of the accused's far-right ideology, developed over months of online "research" that included watching videos of mass killings and reading white supremacist manifestos left by those killers, including immediately before leaving his apartment the night of the attack.
The Crown read out parts of the accused's own manifesto, entitled "A White Awakening," which railed against mass immigration, multiculturalism and perceived crimes against white people.
The jury has also heard that the accused took psilocybin, or magic mushrooms, in the early hours of June 5, 2021, about 40 hours before the attack on the Afzaal family.
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