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Jeffrey Dahmer: Serial Killer Research Paper

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Updated: Jan 12th, 2020

Background of the Case

As a young man growing up in Akron, Ohio, Dahmer showed no sign that could have alerted family and friends that he would become a serial killer. He was the eldest of the two boys in a middle class family (Ewing & McCann, 2006, p.146). He grew up in a suburban area, and their house was set on a couple of acres near Akron City (Ewing & McCann, 2006, p.146). His father was an engineer with a doctorate degree.

He lived a normal life; however, there was one event that could have triggered his criminal behavior. According to a police report, a neighbor sexually abused an eight-year-old Dahmer (Ewing & McCann, 2006, p. 146). Dahmer and his father vehemently denied the claim (Ewing & McCann, 2006, p.146). Therefore, the only clue available for investigators was the eyewitness accounts that he had collected insects and preserved them in a jar with formaldehyde.

The preservation of insects in a jar full of formaldehyde was not a strong indicator that Dahmer would someday become a serial killer. Thus, investigators had to focus on emotional and psychological problems that he had encountered during his teenage years. His classmates in high school told reporters that he suffered from serious alcohol dependence.

Friends and neighbors also attested that his obsession with alcohol was exacerbated by his parents’ divorce when he was a senior in high school (Ewing & McCann, 2006). His classmates, relatives, and friends did not know that Dahmer struggled with homosexuality.

Dahmer killed seventeen people between1978 and 1991 (Turvey, 2008, p. 118). His strategy was to lure the victims to his apartment and drug them. Most of his victims were homosexual men and male prostitutes. Dahmer crushed several sleeping pills in a bowl and added the mixture to a drink. He offered the drink to his victims. After the drugs had taken an effect, Dahmer strangled them. He had sexual intercourse with the corpses, and occasionally ate the body parts of his victims.

Aside from the number of victims and the method employed to murder them, Dahmer performed crude lobotomies on the skulls of the victims in order to craft zombie-like creatures (Gardner & Anderson, 2012, p. 112). Furthermore, Dahmer stored the hands of some of his victims in a kettle and had a severed head of one victim in his refrigerator (Gardner & Anderson, 2012, p.112). In addition, he always kept a heart of his victim so that he could eat it later.

At the trial, Dahmer initially entered a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity (Turvey, 2008). After a while, Dahmer changed his plea and said that he was guilty but he still insisted that he was insane (Turvey, 2008). A not guilty by reason of insanity plea could lead to acquittal.

A guilty but insane adjudication meant that Dahmer would serve his sentence in a psychiatric facility (Turvey, 2008, p.118). Based on Wisconsin law, if it was determined that there was no need for psychiatric hospitalization, Dahmer would be sent to a regular prison (Turvey, 2008). It was important to figure out if Dahmer was insane when he committed the crimes.

The purpose of the trial was to determine if Dahmer could be absolved of responsibility by reason of insanity (Fulero & Wrightsman, 2009). Dahmer’s attorney told the jury, “This is not an evil man; this is a sick man” (Fulero & Wrightsman, 2009, p.118).

The prosecuting attorney, on the other hand, told the jury, “Dahmer knew at all times that what he was doing was wrong” (Fulero & Wrightsman, 2009, p. 118). From the beginning, it was difficult to win the case through the insanity plea because Dahmer did not have a major diagnosable mental illness (Turvey, 2008). In other words, there was no record that could support the claim that he suffered from psychosis.

Ethical Issues

The Eight Amendment of the U.S. Constitution was a protection against “cruel and unusual punishment” (Cochran, 2012). The opponents of the death penalty cited this particular stipulation. However, the phrase “cruel and unusual punishment” was difficult to interpret.

It should be pointed out that the controversy was rooted in the serious disagreement between the criminologists over the importance of capital punishment as a deterrent to capital crime (Cochran, 2012, p. 179). In the case of Jeffrey Dahmer, it was made clear that he was not an ordinary criminal. It can be argued that for heinous crimes, the death penalty must be imposed. There are many who would disagree with this assertion.

The Supreme Court has affirmed that there were two legitimate social purposes that could benefit from the imposition of the death penalty (Cochran, 2012, p.179). The Supreme Court said that these social purposes were deterrence and retribution (Cochran, 2012).

Therefore, in order to deter an individual from committing a crime, the criminal should be executed so that such a case would serve as a warning for the others. This assertion was also based on the assumption that the criminal had no remorse and was proven to be a repeat offender.

There were many scholars who would not agree to the idea of retribution (Cochran, 2012). Retribution may be interpreted as a tradition of a barbaric society. A civilized society must strive to remoralise criminals, not just to punish them. At the same time, this way of thinking can be linked to the principle embedded in the Eight Amendment. But there were others who disagreed with the notion that the concept of retribution was evil. According to one commentary,

There are some crimes for which mere imprisonment seems in inadequate punishment… many people’s intuitive sense of justice was deeply offended when a brutal mass murderer, such as Jeffrey Dahmer, convicted in 1992 not only of killing but also of cannibalizing his victims, was allowed to live on in prison (Cochran, 2012, p. 179).

It is an ethical dilemma needed to be resolved.

Retribution was not a compelling argument to support the death penalty. However, deterrence could not be established as a compelling reason to support the same. According to US top criminologists, “the threat or use of the death penalty can reduce homicide rates more than long-term imprisonment” (Mandery, 2012, p. 36).

The abovementioned observation could be supported by the results of another study that stated, “it is the swiftness and certainty of punishment, rather than its severity, that most effectively operates as a crime deterrent” (Cochran, 2012, p. 179). In order to resolve this ethical dilemma, it should be pointed out that heinous crimes can be prevented not through the imposition of the death penalty but through improvements in the criminal justice system.

There was another ethical issue that was linked to the Dahmer case. There was an incident that made many conclude that that case was an example of police bias and discriminatory treatment against homosexuals and racial minorities (Pollock, 2012).

A few months before Dahmer was arrested, neighbors had seen a thirteen-year-old Laotian boy running away from Dahmer’s house. The boy was naked, incoherent and bleeding from the rectum (Pollock, 2012, p. 135). Two African-American women alerted the police. The women explained to the police that Konerak Sinthasomphone was injured.

When the police confronted Dahmer he said that Sinthasomphone was his lover. Dahmer said that the boy was already nineteen years old. As a result, the police allowed the incoherent and dazed Sinthasomphone to return to Dahmer’s apartment. The police did not allow the emergency response team to examine the boy. If the police let the specialists examine, the boy they would have discovered that Dahmer had drilled holes into Sinthasomphone’s skull.

It was discovered later on that the police had not looked into the matter more intently because they had viewed the case as a “homosexual thing” (Pollock, 2012, p. 135). Shortly after the police had left the scene, Dahmer strangled the boy.

According to criminologists, “If the Laotian boy had been white, if Dahmer had been a minority member instead of a Caucasian, if the two women who requested assistance had not been African American, we might have seen a different response” (Pollock, 2012, p. 135). If the police officers responded differently, Dahmer would have been caught earlier. Law enforcement agencies must be sensitive to this ethical issue in order to increase their efficiency.

Case Law

At the center of the legal debate was the interpretation of insanity, and how it could be utilized to absolve a criminal. The legal requirement was included into the statement stating, “the degree of insanity, mental defect, or mental disease renders a person blameless for acts or omissions and what insanity tests should be used in determining legal and moral liability” (Gardner& Anderson, 2012, p. 112).

At first glance, the not guilty by reason of insanity plea seemed to be a convenient way to avoid prison sentence. But it should be pointed out that the insanity plea was never an easy way-out for criminal defendants (Gardner & Anderson, 2012). The low success rate can be attributed to the different opinions of medical experts. It has to be made clear that in most jurisdictions, the burden was on the defendant to prove the insanity defense.

According to legal minds, juries know how to determine the fact. For example, the jury can follow the evidence and determine if the gun belonged to the defendant. However, when it comes to determining the sanity of the defendant, the jury should be aware of how to determine “the correctness of an opinion” (Carper & McKinsey, 2012, p. 255).

It is to be made clear that “insanity is an opinion expressed by psychiatrists until the jury says it was a fact” (Carper & McKinsey, 2012, p. 255). In this particular case, the jury was well aware that “crazy” was different from legally insane.

The Wisconsin jury that tried Dahmer relied on the Model Penal Code definition of mental responsibility, which stated,

A person is not responsible for criminal conduct if at the time of such conduct, as a result of mental disease or defect, he lacked substantial capacity either to appreciate the wrongfulness of his conduct or his conduct to the requirements of law (Carper & McKinsey, 2012, p. 255).

Therefore, even if the acts committed were bizarre, these were not automatically considered as the byproduct of an insane mind.

It is important to note that in some states, the defense of temporary insanity can be utilized. In the case of temporary insanity, the defendant is considered insane, when committing the crime though becoming sane after that (Carper & McKinsey, 2012). However, the defense lawyer hired by Dahmer did not consider temporary insanity.

Idaho State Law

According to a psychologist, “a legal definition of insanity no longer exists in Idaho” (Hatzenbuehler, 2006, p. 1). She added that Idaho was not the only state that did not codify “insanity” into their legal framework. She also said that a legal definition of insanity did not exist in Montana, Nevada and Kansas.

Criminals who committed a heinous crime in the state of Idaho did not have the option to plead for not guilty by reason of insanity. The option was eliminated after an infamous incident. The Idaho legislators struck the term after John Hinckley had been acquitted (Hatzenbuehler, 2006, p. 1). Defendants acquitted through the insanity plea had been tried before the Idaho code was revamped in 1982 (Hatzenbuehler, 2006, p. 1).

However, even if the criminal was from Idaho, he could still use the insanity plea if the case was tried in a federal court. The heinousness of the crime and the seriousness of the mental illness cannot compel the court to allow the insanity plea as a defense strategy. As a matter of fact, “individuals with serious mental illness and those who suffer from delusions were incarcerated in Idaho prisons since 1982” (Hatzenbuehler, 2006, p. 1). In the past three decades, no one has been ruled insane in the state of Idaho.

Actual Outcome

The burden to prove insanity rested on the defense, and in order to do that, they called for the assistance of many psychiatrists. Dr. Fred Berlin testified on behalf of the defense and said that Dahmer had a psychiatric disorder called necrophilia (Fulero & Wrightsman, 2009, p. 118).

Necrophilia was a type of paraphilia or abnormal sexual behavior. Dr. Berlin added that Dahmer lacked the “substantial capacity to control his actions” (Fulero & Wrightsman, 2009, p. 118). He supported the claim of the defense that Dahmer suffered from a mental illness or defect.

Dr. Judith Becker was a clinical psychologist and professor at the University of Arizona. She offered a sexual history of Dahmer and elaborated on the defendant’s fantasies to build a shrine using the body parts, skulls, and skeletons of the victims (Fulero & Wrightsman, 2009). Dr. Becker supported Dr. Berlin’s view when she said that Dahmer was unable to control his urges. However, she did not diagnose Dahmer as psychotic.

The prosecution team made a counter-argument through the testimony of Dr.Frederick Fosdal. He was a psychiatrist from the University of Wisconsin Medical School. Dr. Fosdal pointed out that Dahmer’s actions were not brutal or sadistic (Fulero & Wrightsman, 2009, p. 119). Dr. Fosdal added that Dahmer was able to control his sexual desires (Fulero & Wrightsman, 2009, p. 119).

The prosecution team also presented Dr. Park Dietz from the University of Virginia. Dr. Dietz made a strong counter argument for the prosecution when he said, the mere fact that Dahmer disposed of his bodies efficiently, planned different methods of disposal, was able to control his murderous urges for years between crimes, and was able to fool his probation officer and policemen on different occasions proved that the man knew exactly what he was doing (Fulero & Wrightsman, 2009, p. 119).

Dietz said that there were two reasons why the defendant committed the crimes; these were alcohol abuse and paraphilia.

The judge who presided over the case appointed two expert witnesses. Dr. George Palermo, a psychiatrist, made the conclusion that Dahmer was not insane. Dr. Palermo added that although Dahmer was driven by obsessive fantasies, he understood what he was doing (Fulero & Wrightsman, 2009, p. 119). The second expert witness appointed by the court was Dr. Samuel Friedman. He supported the claim made by Dietz. Dr. Friedman also concluded that Dahmer was not psychotic.

Dahmer’s actions were beyond comprehension but the jury made the decision that he was not insane when he was committing the said crimes (Greene, Heilbrun, Fortunie, & Nietzel, 2007, p.69). He was sentenced to life imprisonment because there was no death penalty in Wisconsin. In an ironic twist of fate, Dahmer died in the hands of a madman. A few years after his incarceration, he was bludgeoned to death by another inmate who claimed that God had told him to kill Dahmer.


There were only few states that did not allow the use of the not guilty by reason of insanity plea. The State of Idaho has not codified “insanity” since 1982. The State of Wisconsin, however, allowed the use of the insanity plea. But it was made clear that this defense strategy was unable to save violent offenders. Dahmer committed heinous crimes. He mutilated his victims and ate their body parts. Nevertheless, he was not considered insane when committing the said crimes.


Carper, D., & McKinsey, J. (2012). Understanding the law. OH: Cengage Learning.

Cochran, C. (2012). American public policy: an introduction. OH: Cengage Learning.

Ewing, C., & McCann, J. (2006). Minds on trial: great cases in law and psychology. New York: Oxford University Press.

Fulero S., & Wrightsman, L. (2009). Forensic psychology. OH: Cengage Learning.

Gardner, T., & Anderson, T. (2012). Criminal law. OH: Cengage Learning.

Greene, E., Heilbrun, K., Fortune, H., & Nietzel, M. (2007). Wrightsman’s psychology and the legal system. CA: Thompson Higher Education.

Hatzenbuehler, L. (2006). The insane are a dying breed in Idaho. Web.

Mandery, E. (2012). Capital punishment in America: a balanced examination. MA: Jones & Bartlett Learning.

Pollock, J. (2012). Ethical dilemmas and decisions in criminal justice. OH: Cengage Learning.

Turvey, B. (2008). Criminal profiling: an introduction to behavioral evidence analysis. CA: Elsevier, Inc.

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