Day of Reckoning

UPDATED 03/02/1992 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 03/02/1992 at 01:00 AM EST

IT IS OVER NOW." HIS HEAD BOWED IN seeming humility, his blond hair neatly combed, Jeffrey Dahmer stood before a Milwaukee court last week, finally adding his voice to the tales of mutilation, cannibalism and necrophilia that had held the country in a macabre thrall since his crimes were discovered last July.

Delivering his final statement in a quiet, banally ordinary voice, Dahmer explained the reason behind his unsuccessful insanity plea. "This has never been a case of trying to get free," he said. "I never wanted freedom. Frankly, I wanted death for myself." He said that he had gone through the trial in part to let the world know that his crimes, committed most frequently against gay black men, were not motivated by bigotry. "I haled no one," said Dahmer. "I knew I was sick or evil or both. Now I believe I was sick. I know that I will have to turn to God to help me get through each day. I should have stayed with God. I tried and failed and created a holocaust."

With the tearful families of Dahmer's victims listening tensely, Judge Laurence Gram imposed the penalty for that holocaust: 15 consecutive life terms in prison, with parole permissible only after 936 years. "This defendant will never again see freedom," said Gram. "That much is owed the community."

For three weeks the country had been riveted by the details and arguments that had emerged during the trial. Claiming that his client suffered from a sexual disorder, Dahmer's attorney, Gerald Boyle, related how the defendant, as a teenager, had already developed a passion for dismembering and disemboweling animals and had fantasized about doing the same to humans. Ultimately, with his sadistic obsessions entangled with a repressed homosexuality, Dahmer, said Boyle, indulged those fantasies. He confessed to sprinkling salt, pepper and meat tenderizer on human muscles and eating them. The former chocolate-factory worker likened flaying one of his victims to "skinning a chicken." Said Boyle: "This was a sick boy right here."

Sick, perhaps, but not insane in the eyes of the law. Dahmer, said Milwaukee County prosecutor E. Michael McCann, was not a deranged madman but a methodical murderer. Dahmer, said McCann, finagled prescriptions for Halcion sleeping pills from various doctors, then readied pulverized tablets in a glass before stalking victims. He even had the presence of mind to wear a protective condom when having sex with corpses. Addressing the jury, McCann said, "Please, please, don't let this murderous killer fool you." The jurors found Dahmer sane by a vote of 10 to 2. (Wisconsin law does not require a unanimous decision.)

Allowed to address Dahmer in court, his victims' relatives, who had kept their anguish in check, exploded in despair and rage. "That was my baby you took away from me!" wailed Inez Thomas, whose son, David, 22, was killed by Dahmer in the fall of 1990. Rita Isbell, the sister of Errol Lindsey, 19, rushed at Dahmer, screaming, "You Satan, Jeffrey, I hate you, motherf———, I hate you!"

Nevertheless, the trial provided catharsis—even for the relatives of Eddie Smith, 27, whom Dahmer confessed to having killed in June 1990 and whose remains have never been recovered. "We finally closed my brother's casket—so to speak," says Smith's sister Theresa. "I feel a sense of great relief and sadness, as if my brother's life finally came to an end."

In his final, melancholy peroration, Dahmer said of the survivors, "I have seen their tears, and if I could give up my life right now to bring their loved ones back, I would do it. I am so very sorry."

KAREN S. SCHNEIDER
CIVIA TAMARKIN in Milwaukee

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