Best Known For
Dennis Nilsen is best known as the English murderer of many young men in the late 1970's and early 80's.
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He seemed ambivalent about his fate, at turns without remorse, and then showing concern about public attitudes towards him. He fired his legal council, then rehired him, and fired him once again, shortly before he came to trial.
His trial commenced on October 24, 1983. Nilsen was charged with six counts of murder and two charges of attempted murder. He pleaded not guilty to all charges,
citing diminished responsibility due to mental defect.
The prosecution relied primarily on the extensive interview notes that resulted from his arrest, which took over four hours to read verbatim to the jury, as well as the testimony of the three victims, Paul Nobbs, Douglas Stewart, and Carl Stotter, who had managed to escape, all of whom he had attempted to strangle.
Despite attempts by Nilsen's defense to undermine the testimony of these victims, by introducing evidence of their sexual encounters with Nilsen, their harrowing accounts inflicted serious damage on the defense case.
Physical evidence included photographs of the murder scenes, as well as the chopping board used to dissect the victims, and the cooking pot used to boil the skulls, feet and hands (which is now on display at the Black Museum at Scotland Yard).
The defense case relied primarily on the testimony of two psychiatrists, Dr. James MacKeith and Dr. Patrick Gallwey. MacKeith described Nilsen's troubled childhood, inability to express feelings, and the resulting separation of mental function from physical behavior, which affected his own sense of identity, and implied an impaired responsibility on the part of Nilsen. Under intense cross-examination by the prosecution, however, MacKeith was forced to retract his judgment about diminished responsibility.
The second psychiatrist, Gallwey, diagnosed Nilsen as suffering from a "false self syndrome", characterized by outbreaks of schizoid disturbances which made him incapable of premeditation, but most of his testimony was extremely technical, even giving the judge cause to question Gallwey's complex diagnosis.
The prosecution called Dr. Paul Bowden as rebuttal psychiatrist who had spent considerable time with Nilsen, finding no evidence for much of the testimony put forth by the defense psychiatrists. He stated that Nilsen was manipulative, with some signs of mental abnormality, but nevertheless still cognizant of, and responsible for, his actions.
During the summing up, the judge dispensed with the majority of the psychiatric jargon that had perplexed the jury, by instructing them that a mind can be evil, without being abnormal.
The jury retired on November 3, 1983, but were unable to reach a unanimous verdict. The following day, the judge agreed to accept a majority verdict and, at 4:25 p.m., they delivered a verdict of guilty on all six counts of murder.
The judge sentenced Dennis Nilsen to life in prison, without eligibility for parole for at least 25 years.
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