Dahmer: The trial

Photo: Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Dahmer: The trial

By Nick Iannelli. CREATED Jul 19, 2011

MILWAUKEE - The Milwaukee County District Attorney's office was on high alert in the days following July 22nd, 1991.

Jeffrey Dahmer, a man who murdered 17 men and boys over a period of 13 years, had been taken out of his Milwaukee apartment in handcuffs, and prosecutors knew they would have to begin the process of building a very difficult and complicated case.

"The Medical Examiner's Office alerted our office and we went into action," recalls former Milwaukee County District Attorney Michael McCann.  "It was very clear there was a major serial murderer involved."

McCann was the lead prosecutor in the case, the man responsible for ensuring Dahmer was removed from society forever.

He vividly remembers putting together his prosecution team and building a case against the serial killer during a time in which DNA technology was comparatively nonexistent.

"We put a great deal of intensive effort into it," says McCann.  "The volume of facts; Just one homicide has a lot of volume."

But prosecutors would have to sort through 16 different homicides, all of which were committed within Milwaukee County.

The majority of killings happened inside that infamous apartment at 924 N. 25th Street, but several occurred at Dahmer's grandmother's house in West Allis.

Dahmer also killed one of his victims in Ohio which, naturally, was prosecuted by authorities in that state. 

Help From a Serial Killer

Jeffrey Dahmer had disposed of his victims in various demented ways before he even knew their names.

However, despite objections from his defense attorney, Dahmer was willing to give a full confession, leading to a unique investigation that saw Dahmer work closely alongside authorities to match assorted evidence collected from his home with missing persons' reports.

McCann explains, "Through that sifting and working, Dahmer could identify certain bodily characteristics."

"He could give information that eventually, working with the Medical Examiner's Office; they were able to establish precisely who he had killed."

The case against Dahmer was growing, but the public was beginning to absorb all the details of the investigation.

Racial tensions in the city started heating up.

"He had disproportionately selected African American victims and also a few Hispanics," says McCann.  "Much of the community perceived that he was racially motivated."

Adding to the anger was the story of Konerak Sinthasomphone, a 14-year-old boy who Milwaukee police had released back to Dahmer two months before his arrest.

Sinthasomphone was an Asian boy who ran away from Dahmer's apartment, extremely injured, disoriented and naked.  Police intercepted Sinthasomphone but gave him back to Dahmer who claimed they were simply a couple in a fight.

"Had he been stopped at that point a number of young men would not have died," explains McCann.

Milwaukee was damaged, and it was screaming for justice.

The Insanity Defense

Dahmer provided authorities with enough evidence to charge him with 15 counts of murder, but one fundamental question remained.

Was Dahmer evil or insane?

"Every doctor that had anything to with Dahmer knew that he was very very deeply disturbed to the point of insanity," argues defense attorney Gerald Boyle.

Boyle was Dahmer's lawyer during a previous child sexual assault case and continued representing him during the serial murder trial.

"Even though he did the most evil things of anyone I've ever known I don't think he was the most evil person," says Boyle.  "By that I mean I thought Dahmer was mentally ill.  I think he became more mentally ill as he went along with the progression of these killings."

The defense method was no surprise to McCann and his team.  They had been expecting an insanity plea from the very beginning and immediately built a case against it.

"He was a necrophiliac, that is not insanity," says McCann. "The officers did not find him insane, and the citizens that had dealings with him uniformly said no this man is not insane."

Following a two-week trial, the jury sided with the prosecution.

No punishment could soften the pain felt by the victims' families but Dahmer was handed a prison sentence of more than 900 years. 

He was killed by a fellow inmate in 1994.

"Dahmer's incident bloodied Milwaukee but I think Mike McCann and I went about the business of cleansing the image of the city by making this an absolute total one of a kind aberration," says Boyle.  "We didn't allow a circus to take place."

Dahmer divided Milwaukee but in the end, the city was united in its cries for justice. 

The community worked for years to recuperate and today, two decades later, Milwaukee has risen above the crimes of Jeffrey Dahmer.