Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Dennis Nilsen

Trial & Sentencing

Dennis Nilsen
Dennis Nilsen

The trial began on October 24, 1983. The charges were read and Nilsen pleaded "Not Guilty" to each one.

Green described the events of the morning of Nilsen's arrest, but did not force the jury to look at photos of the grisly remains. He also mentioned that there was another count of murder and of attempted murder, but these had been determined too late to include in the original indictment.

Those who testified against Nilsen were Paul Nobbs, Douglas Stewart, and Carl Stotter. Nilsen attempted to undermine their credibility by helping his lawyer to point out problems with some of their statements. He said that Stewart had stayed for another drink after the alleged attack, which Stewart could not explain, and the defense counsel managed to get him to admit that he had sold his story to the media, with embellishments. Nobbs admitted to a sexual encounter with Nilsen and said that he had appeared to be quite friendly throughout the evening. Stotter, shy and quite terrified by the proceedings, also said that Nilsen had been solicitous and friendly. Nevertheless, his chilling account had a damaging effect on the defense.

Carl Stotter leaving courthouse
Carl Stotter leaving courthouse

Nilsen's interviews with the police were read verbatim, taking four hours. The evidence presented in court included the cooking pot, the cutting board used to dissect one victim, and a set of knives that had belonged to Martyn Duffey.

The defense witness, Dr. James MacKeith, discussed the various aspects of unspecified personality disorder from which he believed Nilsen suffered. He then described how Nilsen had always had trouble expressing his feelings, and he always fled from relationships that had gone wrong. His maladaptive behaviors had been in place since childhood. He had the ability to separate his mental and behavioral functions to an extraordinary degree, which implied diminished responsibility for what he was doing. The psychiatrist also described Nilsen's association between unconscious bodies and sexual arousal. He was also narcissistic and grandiose, with the added hindrance of blackouts from excessive drinking. He had an impaired sense of identity and was able to depersonalize others to the point where he did not feel much about what he was doing to them.

On strenuous cross-examination, MacKeith was forced to retract his judgment about diminished responsibility in all of the cases. He said that was for the court to decide.

The second psychiatrist, Dr. Patrick Gallwey, diagnosed Nilsen with a "Borderline False Self As If Pseudo-Normal Narcissistic Personality Disorder." He settled for a False Self Syndrome, which meant that Nilsen had occasional outbreaks of schizoid disturbances that he managed most of the time to keep at bay. Such a person is most likely to disintegrate under circumstances of social isolation. In effect, Nilsen was not guilty of "malice aforethought."

Even the judge questioned Gallwey's obtuse medical jargon and his testimony had the effect of being over the jury's heads.

A rebuttal psychiatrist was called, Dr. Paul Bowden, who had spent fourteen hours with Nilsen-much more than those doctors for the defense. He found no evidence for much of the testimony put forth by the other psychiatrists, and thought that Nilsen was manipulative. He did see Nilsen as a unique case, with a mental abnormality but not a mental disorder. His explanation of the difference was not very clear.

During the summing up, in which the case was reduced to its basic elements, the judge instructed the jury that a mind can be evil without being abnormal, thereby dispensing with all of the psychiatric jargon.

The jury retired on Thursday, November 3rd. The following day, at 11:25 a.m., the judge said that he would accept a majority count, since there were two dissenters on every issue, except the attempted murder of Nobbs. At 4:25, they delivered a verdict: Guilty on all counts.

The judge sentenced Dennis Andrew Nilsen to life in prison, not eligible for parole for 25 years. Nilsen was almost 38.


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