justice at last
His trial commenced on 24 October 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 defence to undermine the testimony of these victims, by introducing evidence of their sexual encounters with Nilsen, their harrowing accounts inflicted serious damage on the defence 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 defence 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 behaviour, 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 judgement about diminished responsibility.
The second psychiatrist, Gallwey, diagnosed Nilsen as suffering from a “False Self Syndrome”, characterised 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 defence psychiatrists. He stated that Nilsen was manipulative, with some signs of mental abnormality, but nevertheless still cognisant 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 3 November 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.