The Families’ Turn to Speak
(part three of four)
In the years leading up to Jeffrey Dahmer’s arrest, the Milwaukee Police Department did little to locate the gay men reported missing.
But how well did the system function after Dahmer’s arrest? How well did it manage its job of pursuing justice for his victims and their families? Well, that would depend on how we understand the legal system’s duties in general and what a “just” outcome would be for this matter in particular.
There was never a need to prove that Dahmer committed the murders. He confessed to them all. In fact, he confessed to more murders than he was able to provide evidence to support.
Since Dahmer had entered a plea of Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity, the technical task was to decide whether or not he was competent when he committed the murders. If found competent according to the terms of Wisconsin’s statutes, his sentence would be to a penal institution. If, on the other hand, he were found to be suffering from a mental disease, the court would sentence him to a psychiatric hospital until such time as his caretakers decided he was well.
The jury found Dahmer to be competent and guilty on all 15 counts for which the state of Wisconsin tried him.
That fulfilled the technical need for a verdict. And this verdict provided some emotional benefits, too. By finding Dahmer to be guilty, rather than sick, the system had identified the person responsible for the atrocities and dealt him the maximum punishment Wisconsin law allowed. As both attorneys — and Dahmer, himself — insisted, the case was never about race; it was never about homosexuality. It was only about this depraved man; and now he was about to be removed from society for the rest of his life. Everything that had been wrong was about to be set right.
It’s not uncommon for victims of violent crimes or their survivors to speak before the court and to express their feelings about the sentence the judge is about to pronounce. For the families of Dahmer’s victims, this would be the first time they’d have a voice in the matter.
During the years they searched for their missing loved ones, the police had frustrated them at every turn. For the two weeks of the trial, they’d listened to the judge, the attorneys, the police and the expert witnesses recount gruesome details of how each man had died. Now — finally — they would have a voice; they’d get to speak to the court, to the public and to Dahmer, himself.
Some family members spoke directly to the matter of Dahmer’s sentence, asking the judge to make sure he never walked free again. Others used their time to express their deep grief over their losses and their anger at Dahmer for what he’d done. But almost everyone who spoke expressed gratitude to the court, the jury and to the legal system for their success in bringing the matter to justice.
Donald Bradehoft is the brother of Dahmer’s last victim, Joseph Bradehoft. After the ordeals of first losing his brother and then listening to the court proceedings and details of the murder, the poor man is near the breaking point. But he still manages to summon the strength and courage to get up before the court and make a public statement.
His fragmented sentences sound like non-sequiturs; his thoughts seem scattered and unfocused. It’s clearly all he can do to hold back his sobbing until he steps down from the podium. But despite the disjointed style of his delivery, we understand clearly the sense he wants to convey.
Donald Bradehoft isn’t speaking non-sequiturs as much as code. We recognize what he wants to say because we recognize each of the references he makes. His delivery may not be eloquent, but he hits on all the right message points to make when we need to assert that we’re playing by the rules, that we’re doing what we’re supposed to do. He’s applauding the system to demonstrate that he’s on the inside, not the outside.
The business of oppression is tricky. Its job is to keep in check the rabble on which the system depends because that same rabble could bring down the whole house of cards if it were ever to turn. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the mechanism of oppression is that it doesn’t function well on its own. It’s a surprisingly delicate little thing. It needs careful nurturing and a safe, suitable environment in order to thrive. And because of its delicacy, forces outside of the rabble are only moderately successful in using it to keep the masses in check.
The mechanism of oppression only works really well once those people at the bottom of the heap have taken it inside themselves. Safe and warm like a developing child, the dominant society’s transplanted hatred grows until it spreads and multiplies, infecting every part of our thinking. We take up the work of our oppressors and do a far better job of keeping ourselves in check than they ever could. We praise the system that opposes us, stay quiet about those things that make us different, and talk down our peers who take a stand against that system.
Remember that it’s Donald Bradehoft’s brother who was killed after 16 others had already disappeared and died. It was his brother who fell prey to Dahmer while the Milwaukee police were busy raiding a benefit for a project to combat anti-gay violence. And in his public distress, near the breaking point, this man falls back on impulses developed long ago. He thanks the DA, god and country: stand-ins for the very system that guaranteed his brother’s murder.
It’s as if the poor man just can’t take any more abuse. That string of disconnected references to the figureheads of the system is the equivalent of crying “uncle,” of holding up his hands to deflect the next blow he knows is about to hit. Something tells me that, as a child, Donald Bradehoft had only even odds that he’d get to school and back on a given day without being attacked by his classmates. And those of us who thought about those same odds when we left for school each morning know that protective reflex, too.
It’s like a political speech with all the specific details filtered out, leaving only the tonal elements that identify the speech as properly patriotic and community-spirited.
I love this world.
You guys did a wonderful job.
Bottom of my heart,
Thank to God,
I’ve got a lot of strength.
Thank you, all.
God bless America.
Like all of the family members who spoke that day, Donald Bradehoft focuses his hatred on Jeffrey Dahmer. And so he should: the man killed his brother. But he seems unable — or unwilling — to look beyond Dahmer’s primary role to the shared guilt of a community, police force and legal system that did nothing to prevent Joseph’s death. He’s near hysterics. But he’s still unable to get mad in a way that might change his relationship to that system that shares responsibility for what happened in Milwaukee.
It would take someone beyond — or out of — control to mix things up a bit … next post.