Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Mark David Chapman: The Man Who Killed John Lennon

Two Marks

Mark David Chapman
Mark David Chapman

Mark David Chapman lives alone in a six-by-ten-foot cell at Attica Correctional Institution near Buffalo, N.Y. He is a model prisoner, apparently freed of the demons that in 1980 told him to kill his onetime hero -- John Lennon, the legendary founder of the Beatles.

Lower-profile criminals might have been released by now, but Chapman has little chance of ever winning parole: He was turned down for the third time on Oct. 5, 2004, despite what the Parole Board called his "exemplary discipline record." The decision was partly because of multiple threats to kill him if he were released. At Attica, he is in solitary confinement for his own protection;Lennon may have been a hero to some of his fellow inmates.

So Chapman, soon to be 50, seems doomed to live out his life in his tiny cell. His release, ironically, would be a death sentence.

He has received little psychiatric treatment except after two violent incidents early in his imprisonment. That's a result of his own decision – over the strenuous objections of his lawyers – to plead guilty to murder. His lawyers were confident he would have been found not guilty by reason of insanity, in which case he would have been committed to a state mental hospital.

He has little to do except read, watch television and think about the act he committed a quarter of a century ago – that, and the events of the first 25 years of his life that led to that act.

He analyzes himself like a psychoanalyst – hardly surprising in that he was interviewed for hundreds of hours by psychiatrists after his arrest. Nine were prepared to testify at his trial. He told the Parole Board he believes that for the last several years he has been free of the demons that tormented him for most of his life.

For the first six years in Attica, he refused all requests for interviews. He didn't, he said, want to fuel the perception that he had killed Lennon to become a celebrity himself. But he later told James R. Gaines his story of the murder and of his confused youth. Gaines turned the interviews into a three-part, 18,000-word People magazine series in February and March 1987. Chapman told the Parole Board it was an interview "which I regret."

Chapman later gave a series of interviews to Jack Jones of the Rochester, N.Y., Democrat and Chronicle. In 1992 Jones published a book, Let Me Take You Down: Inside the Mind of Mark David Chapman, the Man Who Killed John Lennon.

In 2000, with his first parole hearing approaching, Jones asked Chapman to tell his story for "Mugshots," a CourtTV Network program. Chapman refused to go on camera but, after praying over it, consented to tell his story in a series of audiotapes. He told the Parole Board that the program "took a lot out of context, but that's okay."  

He continued, speaking of the Jones interviews: "Those three hours were really great, because I was able really -- it was like a confession almost. I was able to accept my responsibility in this for probably the first real time, and I told him I didn't deserve anything. … And that was the bulk of the interview, and that got missed totally."

 *****

Much of what was reported about Chapman after his arrest is contradictory. So are some of the things he told Gaines and Jones.

So, really, is Mark Chapman. In his first two years of high school, he was a drug user who skipped school and ran away to live on the streets for two weeks. In his last two, he was a born-again Christian who distributed Bible tracts.

He could be short-tempered and vengeful. His two brief attempts at college were failures. He was fired from several jobs.

But when reporters came around after John Lennon's murder, many who knew him described a far different Mark. His high school chorus teacher said, "Out of the 400 students I had, Mark would be the last to do something like that."

Chapman in YMCA, 1975
Chapman in YMCA, 1975
Those who knew him in the caring professions unanimously called him an outstanding worker. As a teen-age YMCA summer camp counselor, he was idolized by the youngsters. "We made him assistant director of the summer camp because he had real leadership qualities," said Tony Adams, who was executive director of the YMCA branch. "If there ever was a person who had the potential for doing good, it was Mark."

Later he was similarly successful with Vietnamese refugees at a resettlement camp. "Especially with the children," a colleague recalled. "He was like the Pied Piper." He became the director's right hand man, accompanying him to meetings with government officials. President Gerald Ford shook his hand.

When he was hospitalized after a suicide attempt, he quickly began cheering up other patients. On his release, the hospital hired him. His supervisor remembered: "All the patients, especially the older ones that nobody else would talk to, just loved that boy, and I can't say enough good about him."

When the moment on the sidewalk across from Central Park came, the "good" Mark was praying to God for the strength to walk away. The "bad" Mark was praying to the devil for the strength to "do it, do it."

The devil won.

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