A question of insanity

February 05, 1992

What confessed Wisconsin serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer did to the 17 men and boys he murdered and dismembered in his home over a 10-year period was either the work of a very sick person or of a supremely evil one. A jury in Milwaukee now has to decide.

If the jury finds that Dahmer was "sane" at the time he committed his grisly acts, he surely will receive a life sentence in prison. If it finds he was insane, he would be handed over to a mental institution where, after only one year, he could petition for release every six months. That possibility frightens many people.

The legal definition of insanity turns on two questions: (1) did the person have the mental capacity to know that what he was doing was wrong at the time; and (2) was he driven by "irresistible urges" that he was powerless to overcome?

The jury will hear testimony from the defense, which has the burden of proof, that Dahmer suffers from a compulsive mental disorder that has driven him to commit horrific acts, including murder. The prosecution argues that Dahmer conducted himself with such calculated, methodical tenacity that it is impossible to believe he wasn't in command of his reason.

The Dahmer case brings into collision the legal and the medical definitions of insanity. One is decided by laws as they are interpreted by courts, judges and juries. The other is determined on the basis of scientific medicine as practiced by hospitals and doctors. When the doctors take over from the courts they are obliged to make professional judgments on medical grounds, not legal grounds.

As a practical matter there is little likelihood Dahmer will ever regain his freedom, even if the jury determines he is insane. Yet even the theoretical possibility that he could seek release after as little as a year seems perverse and undermines the credibility of the law. That is why the insanity defense should be abolished, as Mayor Schmoke, a former city state's attorney, and many others have argued. The law simply cannot allow itself to become the ultimate victim of a madman's crimes.

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