Dedicated observers -- some relatives of victims -- drawn to Dahmer trial

January 29, 1992|By Chicago Tribune

MILWAUKEE -- With quiet rage and sorrow, they come each day to sit in the courtroom where Jeffrey Lionel Dahmer's mind is on trial. Most are black. They are the victims' families.

"I've got a lot of hatred, a lot of anger," said Dorothy Straughter, mother of Curtis Straughter, 18, who was last seen March 7, 1991, and became Dahmer's 10th victim.

When Dahmer exits or enters the courtroom, Ms. Straughter's striking green eyes track him with a grieving mother's intensity. "I want to see what kind of person could do something like that," she said. "You look to see if there's something there."

Theresa Smith's eyes also focus intensely on Dahmer, "To see what my brother saw in him," she said. Ms. Smith acknowledges that her brother Eddie Smith, 28, last seen June 1990, was homosexual.

Rita Isbell, 33, sister of Errol Lindsey, 19, who disappeared April 7, 1991, looks at Dahmer "to see if he will look back at the family members," she said.

"He looks at the prospective jurors, the judge, and the TV cameraman. But he will not look at the family members."

Her sister Yohunna Isbell, 32, looks at Dahmer "to see if he has any remorse."

"He doesn't," she has decided. "None whatsoever."

Glimpses of Dahmer, however, were hard to come by yesterday. For most of the day he disappeared into Judge Laurence Gram's chambers where prosecution and defense grilled potential jurors.

Pool reporters observing the process said Dahmer remained expressionless throughout most of the questioning.

He has pleaded guilty but insane in the killings and dismemberment of 15 young men, most of them in his west Milwaukee apartment.

If he is found insane by the jury, he would be sent to a mental institution and could petition for release every six months. If he is determined to be sane, he would receive a mandatory life prison sentence for each slaying.

One potential juror, a retired widow, was excluded from the panel for her critical views on psychiatry and psychiatrists. At least two others were excluded for their critical attitudes toward the insanity plea.

Milwaukee County District Attorney E. Michael McCann grilled prospective jurors on whether they were familiar with horror movies and slasher film character Freddy Krueger. Mr. McCann was also concerned with attitudes on alcohol, and whether they felt one can be acquitted of responsibility for their acts if they are intoxicated.

It was the first mention of the role alcohol may have played in the killings. Mr. McCann told the prospective jurors that there was intoxication before every killing.

By day's end, 18 prospective jurors had been selected for the final pool of 28, from which defense lawyer Gerald Boyle and Mr. McCann can each strike seven for a panel of 12 jurors and two alternates.

Jury selection is expected to be completed today. Opening statements are likely tomorrow morning, followed by a stream of testimony and description of Dahmer's acts that is likely to be grisly.

Family members of the victims say they will welcome these details. "Not knowing is what hurts the most," said Angelea Isbell, another sister of Errol Lindsey.

"We want to know what he had to go through, whether he suffered," said Yohunna Isbell. There was no body at Errol Lindsey's funeral. Only a skull and hands.

The Rev. Fritz Spence, of Career Youth Development, who counsels family members and has joined them in the courtroom, said knowing the details is necessary to concluding the grief process.

This is what Janie Hagen wants, no matter how gruesome the details.

"I'm prepared to hear the worst," said Ms. Hagen, sister of Richard Guerrero, 22, who disappeared March 29, 1989. "It can't be any worse than the rumors."

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