Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Mark David Chapman: The Man Who Killed John Lennon

Exorcism at Attica

Chapman was charged with second-degree murder, the most serious charge in New York State for killing a non-law officer. Herbert Adlerberg, a lawyer with a reputation for defending unpopular clients, was assigned to represent Chapman.

He quickly withdrew. "I've handled many cases before, the Black Liberation Army case and the Harlem Six, but this is in a class by itself," he said. "I can't handle it. It was too much."

The threat of a lynching was almost too much for police. Windows in his room at Bellevue Hospital, where he was taken for psychiatric examination, were painted black in case there were snipers outside. Fearful for Chapman's life, police bundled him in two bulletproof jackets and made him duck down in the back of a van as phalanxes of police cars rushed him through streets to court appearances.

As Sunday approached, police feared that fans who gathered for the silent tribute in the park might decide to storm the hospital. They transferred him to the Rikers Island jail. A procession of psychiatrists came there to examine him.

He submitted to dozens of tests and freely told them of his anger toward his father, his identification with Holden Caulfield and with Dorothy in Oz – even his conferences with the Little People. He also gave them a list of other celebrities he had thought about killing. He said that while in New York he had thought of leaping to his death from the Statue of Liberty.

The psychiatrists concluded that, while delusional, he was competent to stand trial.

Their diagnoses all differed, but six were prepared to testify for the defense that Chapman was psychotic. The prosecution had three who said his delusions were short of the definition of psychosis.

 In January 1981, what Chapman believed was a brilliant idea occurred to him. He would use the trial to promote The Catcher in the Rye. He told psychologist Milton Kline, "Everybody's going to be reading this book – with the help of the God-almighty media. … They'll have to come out with a deluxe edition!"

He planned to sit reading the book during his trial and from time to time jump up and shout, "Read The Catcher in the Rye! Read The Catcher in the Rye!'" He eagerly autographed copies of the book that his guards brought to him.

Then, on June 8 – two weeks before he was due to go to trial – he called Jonathan Marks, his new lawyer. He said he suddenly realized that God wanted him to plead guilty.

Marks and the defense psychiatrists tried to talk him out of it. He was adamant. Marks asked Judge Dennis Edwards to have a panel re-examine him to determine if he was competent to make such a decision. The judge refused.

On June 22, with the press and public excluded, Edwards questioned Chapman about whether he understood the implications of his plea change. To each question, he answered, "Yes, your honor." He told the judge, "This is my decision and God's decision."

"And as I understand," the judge told him, "you say that you were there with the intent to cause the death of John Winston Ono Lennon and that you fired five shots from your pistol with the intent to cause the death of John Winston Ono Lennon?"

Chapman's replied: "Yes, your honor."

Impressed by Chapman's cool and collected manner, Edwards accepted the plea of guilty to second-degree murder.

On Aug. 24, in a packed courtroom, Edwards overruled Marks' last attempt to change the plea. Then he sentenced Chapman to a term of 20 years to life. He would not be eligible for parole until the turn of the millennium.

 ******

At Rikers Island, Chapman had gone through a violent spell. He destroyed his TV, ripped off his clothes, stopped up his toilet and when it overflowed threw water at the guards. It took six of them to drag him away.

Later, early in his stay in Attica, he had another. As he related it to Gaines, he felt the Holy Spirit come down and say there were demons inside him. "And I asked in Jesus' name [for them to come out]. My face was snarling and it came out my mouth, this thing, and it was gone. … And I said, `I'm ready, God, let's get 'em all out, let's go.'

"During that hour six came out. [They were] the most fierce and incredible things you ever saw or heard in your life – hissing, gurgling noises and different voices right out of my mouth. … The way I was acting – cursing and things like this – weren't me, and when they came out I could sense these things coming out of my mouth, hissing and awful gurgling and grinding and I could feel that part of my personality was gone.

"Believe me, Jim, I wasn't doing this. Something was happening to me."

 "I believed him," Gaines writes.

 ******

In the year 2000, 20 years after Lennon's death and 30 years after the breakup of the group, the Beatles sold more records than any other performer or group.

In 2001 John Lennon won a Grammy Award for the best long form video of 2000. It was for, "Gimme Truth: The Making of `Imagine,'" which was filmed by John and Yoko in 1971.

Fans at Lennon's memorial in Central Park
Fans at Lennon's memorial in
Central Park

Every Dec. 8, groups gather in a section of Central Park near the Dakota that has been named Strawberry Fields, after an autobiographical Lennon song. They pause to honor Lennon's memory and then listen to his music.

In Attica Correctional Institution, Mark David Chapman is still a model prisoner, seemingly free of his delusions. Lower-profile criminals might have been released by now, but Chapman remains in solitary confinement for his own safety.

The 2004 parole hearing, his third, brought a flood of protests. Yoko Ono said Chapman still posed a threat to her and her family. One petition calling for him to live out his life in prison had 2,000 signatures.

On the Internet, many Beatles fans went further. A man from Rome, N.Y., wrote, "By no means whatsoever should this sick waste of oxygen and bone marrow be released from the crime he has committed. May he rot in jail and the fiery pits of hell forever."

A New Yorker wrote, "If he is set free, something will happen to him. This is New York. 'Accidents' happen." A woman wrote, "If Mark David Chapman is let out of jail, he wouldn't last a day. There are too many people who want him dead." A man identifying himself as "Kelsey" wrote, "I'll kill him myself if he doesn't stay in jail."

Chapman told the Parole Board that he had committed the murder to gain attention, "to steal John Lennon's fame. He said, "In some ways I'm a bigger nobody than I was before because, you know, people hate me."

He did not ask for release, saying "I deserve nothing. Because of the pain and suffering I caused, I deserve exactly what I've gotten."

Mark David Chapman, Prison photo ID
Mark David Chapman, Prison
photo ID

The Parole Board ruled unanimously that Chapman's release would "significantly undermine respect for the law." Governor George Pataki released a statement saying, "It is just that he remain in prison for this violent crime."

Chapman can try again for parole in 2006. Meanwhile, he sits in his tiny cell, still trying to comprehend the act that his mind and body committed on Dec. 8, 1980.

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