How Yoko Could Free Lennon's Killer; after 30 Years Calling for Love, Peace and Forgiveness the Widow of the Murdered Beatle Now Faces the Most Agonising Decision of Her Life: Should She Agree to Mark Chapman's Release

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Deep within the maximum-security block of the Victorian jail in northern New York State, prisoner number 81A3860 blinked in angry disbelief when the Western on the communal television set was interrupted by a news bulletin.

His irritation turned to shock as he listened to the report: former Beatle George Harrison had narrowly escaped with his life after being stabbed in the chest by an intruder at his Oxfordshire home. The incident could not have come at a worse time for Mark David Chapman. Now 44, he is the man who, on December 8, 1980, gunned down John Lennon outside the Dakota apartment block in Manhattan. And in the blackest irony, Harrison was stabbed just as Lennon's pudgy-faced killer began to prepare what he hopes will be a successful appeal for his freedom from Attica prison.

In October, The Mail on Sunday has learned, Chapman is scheduled to appear before a state parole board which will decide whether he should be freed in December, when he will have served the minimum of 20 years required by his sentence before becoming eligible for an annual parole review.

It is a hearing at which Chapman intends to present himself as a model prisoner. He recently qualified as a law clerk, a skill which he hopes will work to his double advantage. He will act as his own lawyer and also make much of the fact that he helps other prisoners who are seeking 'justice'.

The second element of his argument, delivered in his soothing Southern baritone, will be that he is a born-again Christian who has repented for his terrible crime.

Indeed, he may often be found in front of a TV camera at the prison, which carries his charismatic sermons over closed-circuit to an audience estimated in hundreds.

Recently he shaved his head, enhancing his aura of monkish penitence. With the help of his wife, Gloria, a Hawaiian-born Yoko Ono lookalike whom he married before the murder, he even runs a small publishing operation from his 10ft by 6ft cell, writing and illustrating evangelical tracts which she distributes to Christian groups.

Criminals, by definition, of course, are liars and con artists and this certainly wouldn't be the first time a murderer has invoked godliness. In Chapman's case, the far more important issue seems to be whether it is safe to turn him loose.

It was about 10.50pmon that night 20 years ago when Yoko and John pulled up in their limousine outside the Gothic stone building which is still Yoko's home. She preceded her husband through the cathedral-like entry arch. As he followed, John heard a voice call: 'Mr Lennon?' The singer turned, myopically peering into the shadows. Five feet away, Chapman, clad in a dark raincoat, crouched in a combat stance.

He fired five hollow-point bullets, four of which hit Lennon. As John collapsed, facedown, Yoko dashed to his side and, screaming hysterically, cradled his head. Because Chapman pleaded guilty to the murder in a plea bargain with prosecutors, he avoided any examination of his motives, but he told doctors at the time he was possessed by Satan.

He also claimed he was suffering hallucinations which made him believe he was Holden Caulfield. The fictitious teenage character in the best-selling novel by J. D. Salinger, The Catcher In The Rye, Caulfield was obsessed with the belief that the adult world was full of 'phonies'. When police found Chapman, he was pacing near Lennon's bleeding body, clutching a paperback edition of the novel from which he was reading aloud.

Just how dangerous he might be was never assessed, however, by the New York legal system. His lawyers had planned to argue that he was insane, but on June 8, 1981, two weeks before his trial date, he says he heard 'a small male voice', which he believed belonged to God, telling him to plead guilty.

The judge sentenced him to 20 years to life in prison.

Before his trial Chapman had undergone psychiatric assessment by his own defence team, when he was diagnosed as schizophrenic, but the plea bargain meant his mental health was never taken into account in sentencing. …