Column: John Lennon's killer could be released on parole

It hardly seems that two decades have passed since John Lennon was shot dead outside his New York City flat. We are reminded of this ignominious anniversary by news that his killer could be set free by year's end.

That's right. Mark David Chapman has completed the minimum 20 years of the "20 years to life" sentence he received in 1980. And now the murderer is eligible for parole.

Goo goo g' joob.

Of course, because of the notoriety of Chapman's crime, New York's parole board will probably be dissuaded from releasing him from his confines at Attica prison. But just the idea that this psychotic killer could be returned to society deeply offends.

One's heart goes out to Lennon's widow, Yoko Ono, who has to make the case to New York's parole board why the killer should not be turned loose. Reportedly, she plans to tell the board that she fears for herself and Lennon's two sons, Sean and Julian, if Chapman is freed.

But it shouldn't matter whether Yoko submits a "victim impact" statement. It shouldn't matter whether Lennon's widow fears for her life and the life of his two sons.

Chapman took an innocent life. With cold calculation. In fact, he actually admitted to using hollow-point bullets to maximize the wounds he inflicted on Lennon -- to ensure the former Beatle's death.

What was particularly enraging was Chapman's boast, in the wake of his crime: "I was nobody until I killed the biggest somebody on Earth."

And if this nobody ever gets out of prison, his freedom will tell other psychotic nobodies out there that they too can get away with killing somebodies. As long as they are willing to do a "deuce" -- that's 20 years for you law-abiding folks -- behind bars.

It's the same thing with other notorious assassins.

Sirhan Sirhan, who shot and killed presidential candidate Robert Kennedy back in 1968, has come up for at least 10 hearings before California's parole board.

He was originally sentenced to die in the state's gas chamber, but his death sentence was reduced to "life" in prison in 1972 when the Supreme Court ruled the death penalty unconstitutional (a ruling later reversed).

One would think that the murderous Sirhan would be grateful that his life was spared. That he would accept his "life" sentence as penance for his heinous crime.

But like Chapman, he thinks the years he has spent behind bars so far are sufficient punishment. He thinks he deserves to take his place among the law-abiding, outside prison walls.

"I'm ready to live as a normal citizen," Sirhan told the parole board the last time he appeared before them. "I've done my time. I've behaved myself."

Chapman and Sirhan must be extremely envious of John Hinckley, who shot and wounded President Ronald Reagan back in 1981. He was found "not guilty" by reason of insanity and was sentenced not to prison, but to St. Elizabeth's hospital in the nation's capital.

For the past year and half, Hinckley has been allowed "supervised" day trips away from the hospital. And hospital officials had actually recommended that he be permitted unsupervised weekly visits with his parents until withdrawing the recommendation earlier this summer.

It seems that the presidential assailant deceived his shrinks this past spring. They discovered that he had "continual interest in violently themed books and music."

So Johnny-boy won't be getting to spend his weekends with mommy and daddy any time soon. Now that's punishment for you.

Chapman and Sirhan are lucky to be alive. Hinckley is lucky to be whiling away his years on a hospital campus. The two killers should have paid for their crimes with their lives. And the would-be killer should have paid for his crime with a life sentence (and no chance of parole).

The most disturbing aspect of all this is that, if the victims of Chapman and Sirhan and Hinckley were not such prominent figures, chances are that all three of them would be set free at some point or another. For that is how leniently murder and attempted murder are treated in our society.

Indeed, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the average sentence for murder is only 15 years. The average time actually served for taking an innocent life is a mere 5-1/2 years.

We can expect lawyers for Chapman to cite such figures, when arguing that the killer has spent enough time behind bars. Much as lawyers for Sirhan and Hinckley have made similar arguments.

But the fact that other killers are doing far less time is hardly an argument to set the murderous Chapman free. It's an argument for imposing far stiffer sentences on less notorious killers.

Joseph Perkins is a columnist for The San Diego Union-Tribune.

Copyright 2000, Newspaper Enterprise Assn.


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