Dissecting the Trial of the Serial Killer, Jeffrey Dahmer

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Jeffrey Dahmer surprised, sickened, captivated, and puzzled the nation when he was detained in 1991 for atrocious crimes that comprised the homicide, mutilation, rape, and cannibalism of 17 men. He was finally convicted and sentenced to fifteen uninterrupted life terms for the offenses, then murdered in prison by an inmate in 1994. Preceding his trial, there were problems as to Dahmer’s mental standing if he was suitable to even stand trial, or if he should be held in a mental institution for life. It seemed difficult to measure someone who could be able of committing such horrendous sins could stand trial. The legal descriptions of sanity or insanity fluctuate from the ordinary classifications for forensic psychologists to make this decision. Lawfully, he was believed appropriate to stand trial as he knew right from wrong and that was demonstrated by the fact that he tried to cover up his wrongdoings. Dahmer’s case would have been captivating to forensic psychologists because his parents were divorced upon his teenage years and his life up until then seemed very normal. Psychologists proved that while he started out like any “normal” child, his behavior changed and became progressively antisocial and lacked confidence at a young age. This seemed normal to everyday kids growing up with little aftermath so what made Dahmer’s life different? Dahmer himself specified that his craving for killing began around the age of 14, when he began slaughtering and mutilating animals. By the time he graduated high school in 78’ he was an alcoholic, around the same time he committed his first murder. Alcoholism consumed his life which drove him to drop out of college his first semester where he then enlisted into the army after his father forced him to. Yet, his enlistment lasted two years before he was discharged to do the alcohol abuse. These excuses led investigators to believe that the alcohol helped him cope with daily life to dial back bigger issues. Dahmer’s impulse for murder became tougher to ignore, which was proven as the majority of his prey were murdered between 1987 and 1991. There was an interview with MSNBC soon before he was slain, Dahmer acknowledged that “prison was absolutely where he belonged because it was the only way he could stay sober and not act on his compulsion to murder.”

On the night of July 22, 1991, Milwaukee Police Department patrol units witnessed a somewhat dressed man tripping down the road close to an apartment building. A handcuff could be seen hanging from his wrist. The man informed the police that he had been threatened inside that apartment building, warning the officers to examine. Police arrested a man named Jeffrey Dahmer at that same apartment. They discovered “what could have been the set of a horror movie numerous body parts belonging to multiple victims.” In serial murder cases, the FBI’s role is often that of providing forensic and other investigative support in an ongoing investigation. That was certainly the case with Dahmer. After analyzing our options regarding jurisdiction in this case under the federal kidnapping statute, the Bureau offered its laboratory and identification services to local authorities in Milwaukee. To help identify previous victims, investigators began tracing the killer’s trail across the U.S. and around the world. Behavioral analysts, also known as profilers, participated as well. The remains of 11 victims were found in Dahmer’s apartment. Evidence recovered there from physical remains to tools used to torture and dismember victims was sent to FBI Headquarters for forensic analysis. The Bureau ran DNA profiles; conducted chemical, biological, and tool mark analyses; undertook photographic and computer examinations; and performed other tests on submitted evidence. Bureau agents and analysts also investigated whether Dahmer could be linked to unsolved murders in areas where he was known to have lived, including Ohio, Florida, and Germany one of the locations Dahmer was stationed while in the U.S. Army. Soon after his arrest, Dahmer confessed to committing more than a dozen murders that included the torture and mutilation of his victims and the abuse of their corpses. In early 1992, Wisconsin prosecutors armed with evidence provided by the Bureau began to set forth charges that Dahmer had killed 15 men during the course of a long criminal career. He was sentenced to life in prison and extradited to Ohio, where he was convicted of another murder.

In State of Wisconsin v. Dahmer, the defense attempted to lead the jury through a series of inferences that would have them conclude the defendant was insane at the time he committed each of the fifteen murders charged by the State of Wisconsin. Defense attorney Gerald Boyle refused to detail his plans for the case. But he is expected to introduce as much graphic evidence as possible in hopes the jurors will conclude that anyone who did what Dahmer did must be insane. “This is a case of insanity. My name is Gerald Boyle and I am representing the defense in this trial. Jeffrey Dahmer was a troubled human being from the beginning. He never received the professional help he needed at a young age which translated into a confused adult life. During interviews, he mentioned that he believed he was the devil. A sane person wouldn’t believe that they were someone else, especially to that extent. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I ask you to take in to account that a sane person could never had committed the crimes that my client did.”

District Attorney E. Michael McCann, however, insisted throughout jury selection that Dahmer legally is considered sane unless Boyle can prove otherwise. And McCann has emphasized that the mere 'enormity' of Dahmer's actions is not enough to conclude that he is insane. They portrayed a client who cooperated fully with the authorities and who was too disturbed to be responsible for his actions. “This is a case of complete sanity. My name is Michael McCann and I am representing the prosecution. Jeffrey Dahmer showed no remorse for his crimes. He openly admitted that killing became an addiction, a passion. He knew what he was doing but continued to do it because it made him feel in control. A direct quote from Dahmer was, 'I carried it too far, that's for sure.' The fact that he understood that he was in the wrong, proves his sanity. Jeffrey Dahmer is a cruel murderer who does not deserve to get the sympathy that he clearly didn’t show his 17 victims.” To make this approach work, they needed narrative distance between Dahmer and the jury so he would not be interrogated about his prior inconsistent statements and meticulous planning of the killings. This distance was created by Dahmer’s silence in the courtroom. The jury heard his words only through others’ voices. Though silence had worked as Dahmer’s strategy outside the courtroom, the weight of the evidence undermined that approach at trial. His actions spoke louder than his wordlessness, and the jury spoke in finding him responsible for what he did. In January 1992, television cameras and newspaper reporters flocked to Milwaukee, Wisconsin as the case pitting the State of Wisconsin against serial killer Jeffrey Lionel Dahmer unfolded. The defendant pled not guilty by reason of mental disease or defect to fifteen counts of first-degree intentional homicide. Although he admitted killing the fifteen victims, he maintained he should not be held responsible for those deaths on the ground that he suffered from a mental disease, and, because of this disease, he was unable to conform his actions to the requirements of the law. Essentially, Dahmer claimed he was a victim of his psychological disturbance and was no more to be blamed for his actions than were the young men whom he killed.

The job of a trial attorney is to tell a story and create a reality in the courtroom using the tools at hand: exhibits, testimony of witnesses, the rules of evidence, and the substantive law at issue in the case. In crafting this narrative, attorneys take a complex set of events and filter them into various causal chains which are necessarily selective and stripped-down representations of what occurred on some prior date or series of dates. Sensitive attorneys understand that success before a jury requires apprehension not only of content, the “what” of the narrative, but also of style, the “how” of the narrative. This emphasis on style is critical because the incompleteness of information given to the jury requires it to fill gaps in reasoning. Often attorneys selectively choose which facts are presented to a jury because there is too much material. Such selectivity may also imply causal inferences in the jury. In the case of State of Wisconsin v. Jeffrey Dahmer, how the case was presented was just as important as the content of that evidence. The text of the evidence needed a context; without it, the jury would not be persuaded.

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From one perspective, the trial should have been simple. Because of the guilty plea, there was no need for the panoply of witnesses and physical evidence that normally attends a homicide prosecution; no need for coroner reports to determine cause of death; no need for specific details of each of the fifteen murders because the defendant conceded causing them. Because the affirmative defense carries the civil burden, the defendant did not need to prove his case beyond a reasonable doubt nor win the assent of a unanimous jury. Rather, the jury had only to weigh the testimony of detectives, acquaintances of the defendant, and expert witnesses to determine the answers to two questions at the time of each murder, did the defendant have a mental disease or defect? and, if that question were answered in the affirmative, as a result of that mental disease or defect, did the defendant lack substantial capacity either to appreciate the wrongfulness of the conduct or to conform that conduct to the requirements of the law? Sentencing was not expected to be a major issue in this case, the defendant was going to be locked up for the rest of his life. The sole question for sentencing was which sort of institution would house him: a prison or a hospital. However, a close examination of the evidence presented in this case subverts any assertion of simplicity. In every insanity case, the legal and mental health professions understand mental disease differently; those difficulties were present here as well. Further, Dahmer’s volubility and his penchant for documenting his actions with photographs and mementos required his attorneys to walk a fine line in crafting a picture of him that was at once familiar enough to garner jury sympathy and odd enough to assure a finding that he suffered from a mental disease. While proclaiming a strategy of complete and open disclosure, the defense carefully avoided facts that might have derailed the story it attempted to construct for the jury.

This strategy of concealment is made manifest with a simple observation: Dahmer’s guilty plea constituted the bulk of the words he said in open court before sentencing. Although Dahmer’s statements to detectives and mental health professionals provided almost all the facts assumed as true in the case, he was never sworn in as a witness, he never spoke at trial, and all of his words were mediated by others who reported them. Rather than permitting the jury to observe the flesh-and-blood defendant from the witness stand, the defense orchestrated his previous statements to fabricate the most appealing figure possible, never undermining this discursive image with the defendant’s live testimony. The strategy not only focused the jury but also controlled the defendant, whose earlier statements revealed inconsistencies and admissions detrimental to his defense.

After a brief description of the facts, and the substance of the testimony, this Article will trace the development of the insanity defense as it applies to the Dahmer case. I will then present challenges that confront any defendant who attempts to raise this argument in a criminal trial, coupled with challenges peculiar to defending Jeffrey Dahmer himself, given his actions before and after arrest. Next, I will turn to narrative theory to explain how the defense presented its case, demonstrating that its case-in-chief restricted the flow of information to the jury and painted a picture of the defendant at odds with his own statements. I will then sketch out how the prosecution countered this image.

The trial itself lasted fewer than thirteen days from opening statements to final summation. The jury’s deliberation was complete in less than twenty-four hours. On February 15, 1992, Judge Laurence Gram, Jr. received a special verdict in which the jury found that, by a preponderance of the evidence, Jeffrey Dahmer did not suffer from a mental disease or defect when he committed the fifteen murders to which he had pled guilty. The jury’s finding was paradoxical because most of the psychiatrists and psychologists who examined Dahmer thought that he may have suffered from some sort of mental disease. The verdict was met with cognitive dissonance both within the legal community and the public at large. On the one hand, people appreciated that Jeffrey Dahmer was not “given a pass,” and that he was held accountable for his disturbing actions which included murder, dismemberment, and cannibalism resulting in the deaths of at least seventeen young men in Ohio and Wisconsin between 1978 and 1991. On the other hand, they felt uneasy with a finding that someone who kills seventeen people, collects the skulls and genitalia of some, eats parts of others, and drills holes in their skulls to “zombify” them is sane.

Beginning with the death of Steven Tuomi in late 1987 and continuing until his arrest in July 1991, Jeffrey Dahmer refined his modus operandi for murdering men susceptible to his entreaties. Dahmer would charm and seduce attractive young men, inviting them to come home with him and promising to pay them to pose for erotic photographs or to watch videos. The victims were mostly in their twenties, and none of them drove a car. After taking a cab or bus to a spot that was a few blocks from his residence, Dahmer would walk to his dwelling with the victims, invite them in, and eventually offer them a drink laced with Halcion, a sleep aid for which Dahmer had a prescription. Once the victims were unconscious, Dahmer would have sex with them, and then he would strangle them before they awoke. Dahmer would often fondle their dead bodies and masturbate, and eventually he would move their bodies either to a drain spout or into a bathtub where he would cut them up to dispose of them, occasionally saving trophies such as their skulls or preserved genitalia. On four occasions he engaged in cannibalism but later stated he found this unfulfilling. He would either burn or throw out their clothing and destroy any identification they had on them. When Dahmer was arrested, there were remains of eleven of his victims in his apartment. In addition to these facts recounted by the defendant to police detectives, additional claims emerged from Dahmer’s discussions with clinicians. Dahmer reported he attempted to exhume a freshly dead corpse for sexual purposes, he drank blood from a test tube while working as a phlebotomist, and he drilled small holes into the skulls of five of his victims while they were drugged and injected a mixture of muriatic acid and water, or boiling water alone, in an attempt to make them sexual slaves. He also claimed that he planned to build a “temple that featured his victims remains in hopes of receiving special powers and energies”

Dahmer’s sexual predilections were so disturbing that no sane person could share them, and even if they could share them, they would not act on them; therefore, because Dahmer had these urges and acted on them repeatedly, proves he could not control his actions. Therefore, he is insane, and his actions should be excused. When examined carefully, the position implies a wide range of disturbing conclusions.

Change the facts a little. Assume rather that the defendant is sexually aroused only when he engages in acts of violent rape. Consistent with this deviation, he lures unsuspecting victims back to his apartment where he rapes them brutally. In his defense, he claims that he cannot control these urges; they are the only way he can achieve sexual satisfaction. Such a stimulus for sexual arousal is in many ways as distasteful as Dahmer’s desires, but I doubt that most people share an intuition that the law should excuse the expression of violent rape fantasies. Merely because Dahmer had an unusual set of sexual triggers does not mean that he was less able to control himself than anyone else. The narrative difficulties faced by the defense are less direct and more complex. Initially, Dahmer laid out his actions in an extraordinarily detailed set of interviews with detectives and experts investigating the case. His statement to the Milwaukee Police Department alone fills over 145 typewritten pages. Normally the defense controls the flow of information from the defendant; that was not the case here. Dahmer repeatedly asked to speak with officers, usually when his attorneys were present, but he sometimes insisted on speaking without counsel. This extensive confession hampered his attorneys’ ability to craft a defense because they could not proffer any argument that conflicted with Dahmer’s self-reported narrative.

A further difficulty in the case arose from its particularly gruesome facts, not only as reported by the defendant but also as photographed and collected by him. On the one hand, the spoken and visual evidence could strengthen the argument that the defendant was mentally unhinged. On the other hand, the defense attorneys needed to weigh proffering evidence that could alienate the jury and risk a verdict based on disgust. Further, because of the physical evidence, the attorneys could not simply claim that Dahmer was delusional and made everything up. The physical evidence tied him ineluctably to facts reported. The defense therefore elected to clothe the evidence in a veneer of respectability by enveloping it in the testimony of clinicians. Concrete details of the murders and the disposal of the evidence were broadly “psychologized” so that the jury would focus on the predicament of a young man haunted by his unorthodox sexual urges, rather than looking at his bloodstained hands.

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