Jeffrey Dahmer shocked, disgusted, fascinated, and baffled the nation when he was arrested in 1991 for heinous crimes that included the murder, dismemberment, rape, and cannibalism of 17 boys and young men. He was ultimately tried, convicted, and sentenced to fifteen consecutive life terms for these crimes, and was himself murdered in prison by another inmate in 1994. Prior to his trial, there were questions as to Dahmer’s mental status and whether he was fit to stand trial, or if he should be committed to a mental institution for the remainder of his life. It seemed impossible to fathom that someone who could be capable of committing such horrific crimes could possibly be mentally fit to stand trial. The legal definitions of sanity or insanity differ from the everyday definitions, and it would have been the job of one or more forensic psychologists to make this determination. Legally, he was deemed fit to stand trial because he knew right from wrong, and that was evidenced by the fact that he attempted to cover up his crimes.
Dahmer’s case would have been intriguing to forensic psychologists because while his parents divorced when he was a teenager, his life up until then was pretty typical. Experts have pointed out that while he started out like any “normal” child, his demeanor seemed to change and he became increasingly antisocial and lacking in self-confidence around the age of six, which was also when his little brother was born and the family moved from Iowa to Ohio. Again, these life events happen to kids every day, with seemingly little effect, so why did they have such a huge impact on Dahmer? Dahmer himself stated that his compulsion to murder began around the age of 14, which is around the time when he began killing and dismembering animals. He also began to drink heavily, and was an alcoholic by the time he graduated from high school in 1978, which was coincidentally when he murdered his first human victim. He enrolled in college, but his alcoholism got in the way and he dropped out after his first term. His father then forced him to join the Army, but he was discharged after only two years, again due to alcoholism. These two failures only lessened Dahmer’s self-confidence, and would have made it even more difficult for him to cope with everyday life. As time went on, Dahmer’s compulsion toward murder became harder to ignore, which was evidenced by the fact that the majority of his victims were killed between 1987 and 1991. In an interview with MSNBC shortly before he was killed, Dahmer admitted that prison was absolutely where he belonged because it was the only way he could stay sober and not act on his compulsion to murder.
While the nightmare that was Jeffrey Dahmer’s crimes ended with his death, forensic psychologists will most likely continue to study him in hopes of better understanding the minds of future serial killers, and hopefully preventing future similar incidents.
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