By any measure, Thomas Jacobson has lived a very colorful life. A survivor of the S.S. St. Louis, he made his way to the Milwaukee area, where he enjoyed a decades-long career as one of Wisconsin’s leading civil rights attorneys and co-founded Milwaukee’s first racially integrated law firm in 1962.
He argued before the U.S. Supreme Court twice, and in the 1990s, he represented the families of eight of the victims of Milwaukee serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer.
Now, with the Dahmer case back in the public consciousness due to the popular Netflix series, Jacobson has taken up one more cause. In recent months, Jacobson has been writing letters, and been interviewed by news outlets taking exception to that series, “Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story.”
Jacobson, in one letter, slammed series creator Ryan Murphy for “family disrespect, and of a shameful, exploitative portrayal of their loved ones, like they were freaks in a circus sideshow.” In an interview with the Chronicle, he also was critical of Netflix and Murphy for not reaching out to the families of the victims ahead of the production of the series. Netflix did not respond to a Chronicle request for comment.
The attorney, who is in his mid-80s, retired about 15 years ago and now lives in California. He said he was inspired to speak out by Rita Isbell, one of his former clients, who had come forward with such concerns after the show was released.
And while he acknowledges that the First Amendment would almost certainly preclude any lawsuit against Netflix over the series, he does believe that the producers of the show should offer “monetary consideration from the Netflix profits for the victim families’ exploitation and continuing trauma,” as he said in one letter. In the past, Jacobson has sued both Dahmer’s father over a book he wrote, and the author of what he called an “exploitative” comic book about the case. Dahmer’s father, in turn, reportedly has threatened to sue Netflix.
Jacobson did say he watched the entire series and was impressed with it from a technical standpoint, and with the lead performance by actor Evan Peters as Dahmer, and that he liked the series more than other previous fictional treatments of the story. He also praised some of the past work of Murphy, who has signed on to make two more series for Netflix, about “other monstrous figures.”
But he’s also been moved to action by parts he disliked.
“He’s talking about high-profile murders and their effects on the community, I mean, it’s all negative, is what it is,” Jacobson said of Murphy. “It appeals to the true crime audience; they have an insatiable appetite for this sick gore kind of thing that murderers do, and he’s excellent at telling these stories.”
“Here’s a guy who is gay, who’s got a reputation for being really sensitive for marginalized groups. He did the series “Pose,” about the transgender people. He’s done some very significant work when it comes to the gay and trans community,” he said of Murphy. “But when it came to how he handled exploiting the O.J. Simpson case and the Jeffrey Dahmer case, what he failed to do is really be sensitive to the families of the victims.”
The show did not have a character directly based on Jacobson, but he did say an attorney briefly featured talking about compensation ideas in one episode was probably inspired by him.
Jacobson was born in Germany in 1938. When he was just a year old, he was a passenger on the S.S. St. Louis, the boat that escaped the Third Reich but was turned away when it arrived in Cuba in 1939, in what’s been called the “Voyage of the Damned.” Of the 937 passengers on the St. Louis, Jacobson estimates he’s one of about 25 who are still alive.
Ultimately, his family made it to the United States and settled in Milwaukee. Jacobson went to the University of Wisconsin, got his law degree there, and began practicing law in the early 1960s. He was also part of the Jewish community in Milwaukee, with his family belonging to local synagogues, and he did legal work on behalf of the Anti-Defamation League on a couple of occasions.
“That made me very sensitive to issues of human rights,” Jacobson said of having survived the St. Louis. He partnered with civil rights activist and state assemblyman Lloyd Barbee, and he represented the NAACP, the Black Panthers Party, CORE, and other civil rights groups and individuals in the late 1960s. He called himself “the go-to lawyer in Milwaukee for civil rights cases” at the time.
In the 1990s, he represented the families of the Dahmer victims, who were suing Dahmer personally — first one family, and then others who later joined. The clients ultimately recovered about $450,000, and Jacobson says he never collected a dime in fees for any of the work he did on the Dahmer case. Back then, as now, Jacobson has been critical of media responses to the Dahmer victims seeking compensation, something that he didn’t see when the victims of Ronald Goldman and Nicole Simpson’s families sued O.J. Simpson.
“I think that there’s a real bias about compensating gays or Blacks or Hispanics who have become victims in these true crime cases,” he said. “There isn’t that same insensitivity when victims are white.”