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August 24, 1981, Mark David Chapman Sentenced for Murdering John Lennon - Today In Crime History

On this day, August 24, in 1981: Mark David Chapman was sentenced to 20 years to life in prison for murdering John Lennon.

Chapman shot the former Beatle four times outside his apartment building, in the presence of Lennon’s wife, Yoko Ono, and others on December 8, 1980.  Chapman remained at the scene, took out his copy of “The Catcher in the Rye” and read it until the police arrived.  In his statement to police, Chapman said, “I’m sure the large part of me is Holden Caulfield, who is the main person in the book. The small part of me must be the Devil.”

Chapman was charged with second degree murder.  He was taken to Bellevue Hospital for psychiatric examination. The conclusion was that, while delusional, he was competent to stand a trial.  Nine psychiatrists/clinical psychologists were prepared to testify at his trial – six of the clinical opinion that he was psychotic and three of the clinical opinion that his delusions fell short of the necessary criteria for psychosis.  Lawyer Herbert Adlerberg was assigned to represent Chapman but, amid threats of lynching, withdrew.  Police feared that Lennon fans might storm the hospital and they transferred Chapman to the Rikers Island jail.

At an initial hearing, in January 1981, Chapman's new lawyer, Jonathan Marks, entered a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity.  In February, Chapman sent a handwritten statement to The New York Times, urging everyone to read The Catcher in the Rye, calling it an "extraordinary book that holds many answers." The defense team sought to establish witnesses as to Chapman's mental state at the time of the killing.  It was reported that his defense team was confident he would be found not guilty by reason of insanity, in which case he would have been committed to a state mental hospital and received treatment.  However, in June, Chapman told Marks he wanted to drop the insanity defense and plead guilty. Attorney Marks objected with "serious questions" over Chapman's sanity, and legally challenged his competence to make this decision, requesting a further assessment of his mental state.  In a hearing on June 22, Chapman said God had told him to plead guilty and that he would not change his plea or ever appeal, regardless of his sentence.  Attorney Marks told the court that he opposed Chapman's change of plea, but that Chapman would not listen to him. Judge Dennis Edwards refused a further assessment, said Chapman had made the decision of his own free will, and declared him competent to plead guilty

On August 24, 1981, the sentencing hearing took place. Two psychiatrists gave evidence on Chapman's behalf.  Judge Edwards interrupted the second psychiatrist, saying the purpose of the hearing was to determine the sentence and that there was no question of Chapman's criminal responsibility, drawing applause from the courtroom. The District Attorney said Chapman committed the murder as an easy route to fame. Defense attorney Jonathan Marks told the court that  Chapman did not even appreciate why he was there. When Chapman was asked if he had anything to say, he rose and read the following passage from The Catcher in the Rye, when Holden tells his little sister, Phoebe, what he wants to do with his life:

"Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody's around — nobody big, I mean — except me. And I'm standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff — I mean if they're running and they don't look where they're going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That's all I do all day. I'd just be the catcher in the rye and all."

The judge ordered that Chapman should receive psychiatric treatment in prison and sentenced him to 20 years to life, less than the maximum possible of 25 years to life.  As a result of this sentence, Chapman first became eligible for parole in 2000, which was denied. Under New York law he is entitled to a hearing every two years. Chapman has been denied parole six times. by a three-member board since the year 2000.

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