On July 22, 1991, Tracy Edwards escaped from the Milwaukee, Wisconsin, apartment of a man who’d handcuffed and threatened him. After encountering Edwards, police headed to the apartment to investigate. There, they met Jeffrey Dahmer and uncovered a trove of horrors.
Inside Dahmer’s apartment were human remains, including severed heads, and he soon confessed to committing 17 murders. He said the first had occurred when he was 18, and he’d slaughtered 16 more men and boys between 1987 and 1991.
Police corroborated Dahmer’s gruesome crimes, and he was held for trial. However, instead of determining guilt or innocence, this killer would be judged on whether he’d been driven by insanity or had committed incomprehensible acts as a sane man.
Dahmer changed his plea
Dahmer pleaded not guilty to 15 charges of murder on September 10, 1991. His first claimed victim, an 18-year-old hitchhiker named Steven Hicks, had been killed in Ohio, so Dahmer would have to return to that state to face charges. As the body of his second claimed victim had not been found, prosecutors in Wisconsin opted not to charge Dahmer in that instance.
On January 13, 1992, Dahmer changed his plea to guilty but insane. This removed the need for the criminal trial, meaning court proceedings would focus on Dahmer’s sanity. The jury’s decision would not need to be unanimous; only 10 of 12 jurors would have to agree on Dahmer’s mental state for a verdict to stand.
“Wisconsin’s procedure for insanity is different from most jurisdictions, including the federal courts,” Brian Hobson, a partner at Odom, Davis & Hobson, explains to A&E True Crime. “They bifurcate their insanity proceedings. They try the defendant for the crime in the first proceeding [with a unanimous verdict required]. If they are found guilty, they move to the insanity portion of the trial [where 10 jurors of 12 siding with the defense is required].”
[Stream Invisible Monsters: Serial Killers in America, about Jeffrey Dahmer and other serial killers, with no sign in required in the A&E app.]
Hobson also notes: “Wisconsin deems a defendant insane if at the time of the incident the defendant 1) lacked substantial capacity to appreciate the wrongfulness of their conduct, or 2) lacked substantial capacity to conform their conduct to the requirements of the law. The lack in substantial capacity must be due to an underlying disease or mental defect.”
At the courthouse
When Dahmer’s trial began on January 30, 1992, people swarmed the Milwaukee County Courthouse. “There was a crowd outside the courthouse made up of media,” says Robyn Maharaj, who co-authored Grilling Dahmer with Detective Patrick Kennedy, one of the policemen who interrogated Dahmer. (Kennedy passed away in 2013, but shared his notes and spoke to Maharaj before his death.)
“This was the early ’90s, so [with the new] 24-hour news cycles, [outlets] were always looking for news to cover, and a serial killer trial was an opportunity that they had to report on,” says Maharaj. “People were waiting in line to get seats or get as close to the courtroom as possible.”
The trial also reopened local wounds. On May 27, 1991, 14-year-old Konerak Sinthasophome had escaped from Dahmer’s apartment. When police found him on the street, he was nude and unable to communicate. Police then brought him back to Dahmer’s apartment, where the killer convinced the officers that the boy was his lover. Police left Sinthasophome with Dahmer, thinking it was a lover’s quarrel, and Sinthasophome became Dahmer’s 13th victim.
These tensions were reflected in the courtroom. Maharaj’s and Kennedy’s book describes an 8-foot bulletproof glass barrier that divided spectators from the courtroom itself. The room was swept for explosives before the crowd filed in. Seats were reserved for victims’ family members, as well as for Dahmer’s father and stepmother.
The Dahmer trial begins
“In the case of Dahmer, he admitted that he knew his actions were wrong, so the question became whether or not he was able to control himself,” psychologist Dr. Holly Schiff tells A&E True Crime. By choosing to plead insanity, “Dahmer had the burden to prove to the jurors [since 10 out of 12 must agree] that he was insane at the time of the killings,” she says.
In his opening statement, Gerald Boyle, representing Dahmer, said his client was “not an evil man, [he] was a sick man.” He acknowledged Dahmer had had sex with corpses, committed cannibalism and performed lobotomies, but did so because he suffered from necrophilia, a psychological disorder in which a person has a desire to have sex with dead bodies.
“He wanted to create zombies, people who would be there for him,” said Boyle. The attorney also shared the bizarre obsession Dahmer had with the Emperor in Return of the Jedi, noting that his client had even acquired yellow contact lenses to emulate that character.
But Prosecutor E. Michael McCann outlined the multiple ways Dahmer had demonstrated he could maintain control of his behavior, such as cautiously selecting his victims and always killing in “a carefully controlled environment.”
Those in court heard, in gory detail, Dahmer’s actions. He had lured potential victims to his apartment with promises of sex or money in exchange for photos. Once inside, he drugged their drinks. When he murdered victims, he often documented the process with photographs. Some incapacitated victims were lobotomized. In addition to engaging in necrophilia, Dahmer had held onto body parts as trophies or for him to cannibalize.
Sane or insane?
A large part of Dahmer’s trial consisted of testimony from psychologists and psychiatrists regarding his mental state. Witnesses for the defense described behavior that, in their professional opinions, indicated mental illness.
Dr. Judith V. Becker, who diagnosed Dahmer as a necrophiliac, stated, “He has a mental disease. That is what drives his behavior.”
Dr. Carl Wahlstrom saw Dahmer’s desire to build a temple from skulls he’d collected as potentially delusional and psychotic.
Dr. Fred S. Berlin said of Dahmer’s behavior, “If this isn’t mental illness, from my point of view, I don’t know what is.”
Experts for the prosecution painted a picture of a killer who was in control of his behavior.
Dr. Frederick Fosdal, a witness for the prosecution, testified Dahmer had said, “I had choices to make. I made the wrong choices.”
Prosecutorial witness Dr. Park Elliott Dietz said that though Dahmer was an alcoholic, his killings had been well-planned and deliberate. In addition, he pointed out Dahmer’s condom use due to fears of contracting AIDS.
The prosecution displayed photos of Dahmer’s victims during McCann’s final speech. “He’s fooled a lot of people,” McCann said. “Please, please don’t let him fool you.”
The verdict in Dahmer’s trial
Jurors were instructed to consider if Dahmer had a mental illness, and if so, did this render him unable to conform to the law. A finding of sanity would send him to prison. Should the jury declare him to be insane and incapable of control, Dahmer would be sent to a state institution, from which he could later petition for release.
On February 15, 1992, 10 out of 12 jurors found Dahmer was not mentally ill. As Dahmer had not been determined insane, the question of his ability to control himself did not need to be decided.
“His crimes were organized, premeditated and he chose his victims carefully,” says Dr. Schiff. “He was thoughtful when it came to storing body parts in his refrigerator as he planned to eat them later. He targeted men who did not have a car since he knew that missing persons could be traced through their automobiles. Someone who is insane does not have the ability to plan ahead and have the forethought and organization to commit such atrocities.”
What was Dahmer’s sentence?
After the verdict, Dahmer had the opportunity to speak. “When Dahmer was allowed to address the court, it was pin-drop quiet as this was the first time almost everyone heard from him,” says Maharaj.
Dahmer told the court, “I wanted to find out just what it was that caused me to be so bad and evil. The doctors have told me about my sickness, and now I have some peace.”
Judge Laurence C. Gram sentenced Dahmer to 15 consecutive life sentences. Dahmer was subsequently tried for a murder in Ohio, where he was found guilty and received another life sentence.
On November 28. 1994, Dahmer was beaten to death by a fellow inmate at Wisconsin’s Columbia Correctional Institution. The inmate, Christopher Scarver, claimed Dahmer had been taunting fellow inmates with his cannibalistic infatuation.