"The nobody who murdered the biggest somebody"
After extensive evaluations psychiatrists concluded that, whilst delusional, Chapman was competent to stand trial. Chapman was charged with second-degree murder, the most serious charge in New York State, for the killing of a civilian who is not a law enforcement officer.
Chapman’s defence lawyer, Jonathan Marks, began to prepare the case, but was sidetracked early on by Chapman’s latest obsession. He would promote ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ throughout his trial, by reading it openly in court, and jumping up periodically, exhorting the general public to read it for themselves. Then, in June 1981, following months of trial preparations, Chapman suddenly decided to plead guilty to the murder charge, over the strenuous objections of his lawyer. He claimed that God had persuaded him to plead guilty. He repeated this allegation to Judge Dennis Edwards, on 22nd June 1981, and the judge accepted Chapman’s guilty plea.
His sentence was finally handed down on 24th August 1981, a minimum of 20 years to life imprisonment.
Chapman, who had been regarded as ‘legally rational’, that is competent to stand trial, was transferred to Attica State Prison, rather than to a mental institution, and held in solitary confinement for his own safety. He refused any psychiatric assistance whilst there, and claimed that his Christian faith enabled him to overcome his demons, within seven or eight years of his incarceration.
Two decades on Chapman is described as a model inmate, although he has been refused parole on three separate occasions in October 2000, October 2002 and October 2004. In 2004 Yoko Ono wrote to his parole board, claiming that Chapman still posed a threat to her family. At the last of these hearings he made no attempt to influence the board’s decision, and he is reported to have said, “Because of the pain and suffering I caused, I deserve exactly what I've gotten right now”.
Chapman was due for another parole hearing in October 2006. Given the media attention surrounding him, and unwavering public outrage at the death of Lennon, thousands of fans continue to converge on Strawberry Fields in Central Park on each anniversary of his death, it is unlikely that Chapman will ever be released.
A film called ‘Chapter 27’, starring Jared Leto and Lindsay Lohan, about Chapman’s experiences during the weekend of the assassination, was released in 2007. The film met with vociferous objection from Lennon fans, who felt that the film fed into Chapman’s fame fantasy, the reason he gave for killing Lennon in the first place.
As is the case with the sudden death of many of the 20th Century’s icons, such as James Dean, Marilyn Monroe and John F Kennedy, conspiracy theories abound. The most popular seems to be a CIA-directed plot, by the newly elected, though not yet in office, ultra-right wing government of Ronald Reagan, who feared the anti-war stance of national icons like Lennon, and their ability to galvanise an anti-war, anti-government public uprising. Conspiracy theorists point to Chapman’s time in Lebanon, reputedly a prime CIA training area in the 1970s, and there are claims that he was either a CIA operative, or somehow brainwashed, with ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ being his psychological trigger to kill, a la ‘The Manchurian Candidate’. It is true that he was carrying a copy of the book on the night he assassinated Lennon and his bizarre attempts to promote the book prior to his trial were definitely odd.
Others claim his training occurred whilst he was based at Fort Chaffee, during his work with displaced Vietnamese children, and they point to ‘missing periods’ in the late 1970s, when Chapman was supposed to be receiving mental treatment but could have in fact been in military training.
Still others claim that Hawaii was the base from which Chapman received his CIA training/brainwashing, and point to his unlimited funds; purchasing works of art, staying at the Waldorf and Sheraton, being in possession of $2000 in cash at the time of his arrest, as proof that he was a CIA agent on a mission.
Another theory points to Chapman’s sudden ‘Voice of God’ motivation for changing his plea to guilty, claiming that his controllers, fearful of his deteriorating mental state and what he might reveal during a full trial, somehow programmed him again to plead guilty. Chapman’s ‘unnatural calm’ after his change of plea is cited as evidence of this behavioural programming.
It is an established fact that both the FBI and the CIA had Lennon under almost constant surveillance from the time of his first immigration bid to the United States, in the late 1960s, until 1976, and that both agencies amassed Lennon dossiers consisting of hundreds of pages. Given that these inherently right-wing government agencies had been suppressed for most of the latter half of the 1970s, during the Democratic Carter administration, it seems likely that individuals within each organisation would have welcomed the arrival of the Reagan era. Many within the agencies might well have continued to consider Lennon’s absolute anti-war stance subversive and might well have resumed their surveillance of Lennon, had he lived to see Reagan inaugurated.
Nevertheless, whilst the various conspiracy theories are certainly food for thought, no concrete proof has ever been provided to back up any of these claims. Conspiracy theorists, in response, cite the abilities of the CIA and other agencies to effectively cover their tracks. In the absence of a Mark Felt/Deep Throat-type confession, from someone within the agencies, the mystery, if that is what it is, seems likely to remain unresolved.