‘This will be my statement’: Watching the wheels in New York

With his pudgy hands shackled in front of him, Mark David Chapman sat at his defense attorney’s table, facing the judge who would decide his fate. Inside the crowded federal courthouse in downtown Manhattan, the man who murdered John Lennon rarely looked up from his lap, where he clutched a dog-eared paperback copy of The Catcher in the Rye, calmly turning the pages as best he could against the steel tug of the handcuffs.

Chapman didn’t really look like the deranged killers you see in the movies, although his hair was barely crew-cut length – he’d recently shaved his head in prison – and there were deep black circles under his eyes, as if he hadn’t slept in a week.

He was just some overweight loser. A bulletproof vest under his dingy brown sweatshirt made him look stockier than he was, like he was wearing football pads.

It was the summer of 1981, just eight months after the murder. A buddy of mine was living in Brooklyn Heights, working as a production assistant on the soap opera The Guiding Light. I’d accompanied him to the studio the day before, and watched them tape the show. Got a script autographed for my mom, who was a fan.

During an afternoon of sight-seeing, he accompanied me to the Dakota, the gothic mansion where Lennon had lived – and died – on Central Park West. I’ve stopped by there many times over the years, but that first visit, when the shock and the anger were still fresh, hanging in the air like gunpowder smoke, has stayed with me.

Bob was about to leave for the studio the next morning; if I had plans, I don’t remember what they were. In his little kitchenette, I perused Time magazine over my morning coffee – and I saw, under Milestones, the item about Chapman. He’d pled guilty in June – “God instructed me to do it” – and was to be sentenced on August 24.

That very day.

So whatever I was going to do, I didn’t do it, and I went to the federal courthouse instead. Bob convinced me to take his CBS ID badge, so I could get into the journalist section in case there were too many “regular people” there, taking up the cheap seats. I wouldn’t start writing professionally for another year or two.

Here’s the thing about John Lennon. And I’m well aware that millions of people feel exactly the same way. Let’s take the Beatles out of it for a moment – the incredible artistry, the unparalleled songs, the amazing cultural saga that publicity guru Derek Taylor called “The 20th Century’s Greatest Romance.”

The Beatles. Yeah. You get it.

I’m not one of those people who think Lennon, in hindsight, was a genius or a visionary or a deep philosopher or any of that stuff. I find it amusing when people quote him – or, more often, misquote him – with those goofy Facebook memes.

What he was, was charismatic, brilliant, quick-witted and extraordinarily talented. Lennon was so, so funny, and despite the fact that he often said ridiculous things, it was hard – impossible – to give up on him. You could not look away.

The indisputable magic of a celebrity like his was that you felt like you knew him, even though you didn’t really, and it was a really good feeling.

When that guy shot him in the back, he’d just made a new record, and started giving interviews again, after a self-imposed five years off the radar. When John “returned,” I – like so many others around the world – was just so fucking glad he was back in my life.

So it was weird to hear the prosecutor’s clinical description of the crime, step by step, and to hear the word “victim” followed by “John Winston Ono Lennon.” It brought it all home, you know? Now he was another statistic.

Two psychiatrists who had examined Chapman at length spent hours on the stand, describing his childhood fantasies about the armies of “little men” who lived in the armchairs and sofas of his family’s living room. This testimony is described in detail in the excellent book Let Me Take You Down.

I didn’t follow much of it. Sitting in the media gallery, behind the sketch artists who were drawing like mad, I watched Chapman. His puffy black eyes remained fixed on the ratty red book in his lap.

When the testimony was over, the judge asked if Chapman wished to make a statement before sentence was imposed. When the reply came – “yes, your honor,” in a hoarse whisper – you could feel the intake of air as everybody in the courtroom gasped. The woman in the seat in front of mine held her pencil at the ready over her sketch pad.

A uniformed, armed officer moved in behind him as Chapman stood up at the table. “I’d like to read from The Catcher in the Rye,” he said loudly. “This will be my statement.”

And he did. With the paperback open in front of him, he read that famous paragraph from J.D. Salinger’s teen-alienation novel, the one about little kids falling off a 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.

We all sat back, slack-jawed. The judge gave him 20-to-life. They led him away.

And that was that.