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Stream It Or Skip It: ‘John Lennon: Murder Without A Trial’ on Apple TV+, An Account Of The Beatles Icon’s Killing With Standard Issue True Crime Vibes

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John Lennon: Murder Without A Trial

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The three-part documentary series John Lennon: Murder Without a Trial (Apple TV+) returns to the scene of the crime outside The Dakota in New York City, where John Lennon was shot and killed on a cold night in December 1980. Narrated by Kiefer Sutherland and featuring interviews with eyewitnesses, police personnel, defense lawyers, and psychiatrists, Murder Without a Trial is constructed like so many true crime docs, with episodes based around the day of the shooting, the investigation, and the eventual courtroom proceedings. But while thorough, there isn’t much new here to report.  


Opening Shot: In a grainy piece of old news footage, the crowd of thousands gathered outside the Dakota are asked by Yoko Ono to observe a moment of silent reflection. “You have to ask yourself the question,” a reporter says, “why John Lennon’s death is being felt so widely, so deeply.”

The Gist: Ono is only heard in audio recordings in Murder Without a Trial; the docuseries kicks off with a brief segment featuring marginal portions of an interview she and her husband John sat for on the very day he was murdered. And going forward, Lennon’s killer, Mark David Chapman, will only be heard in archival material. But the doc does include interviews with eyewitnesses from the night of the shooting, and those form the basis of its first installment, entitled “The Last Day.”

When asked by a producer why he’s speaking more than 40 years after Lennon’s death, Jay Hastings says he just didn’t want any trouble. But now? “Time’s passed. Put it on the record. Once and done.” Hastings was the Dakota’s concierge, on duty the night of December 8, 1980, and it was Hastings Lennon fell toward after taking four bullets in the back and shoulder fired by Mark David Chapman. He says “I’m shot” were Lennon’s last words, and another eyewitness, Dakota porter Joe Many, tears up as he describes the blood on the scene and Ono holding Lennon’s head in her lap.

Chapman, variously described as “roly-poly,” “chunky,” or a college kid who didn’t look like he’d shoot anyone, let alone a world-famous musician and peace activist, stayed on the scene after the act. Responding officers interviewed for Murder Without a Trial describe a man who didn’t try to run, didn’t resist. And when it falls to Detective Ron Hoffman to investigate the crime, he says his initial attempts were hampered by Chapman’s utter ordinariness. (“He was a non-entity.”) Murder makes a few pronouncements at the outset about the potential for conspiracies surrounding Lennon’s murder, like how the former Beatle had been surveilled by the FBI. But that a prominent voice for social justice might have been labeled a subversive by a federal agency isn’t really a revelation, and Murder goes out of its way to establish that at the time of his murder, Lennon had purposely stayed out of the public eye for over five years. 

After his arrest, Chapman underwent batteries of psychological tests. But he rejected his lawyers’ plan for an insanity defense in favor of a guilty plea, which led to his sentence of 20 years to life for killing Lennon. Murder Without a Trial thoroughly presents its facts, and finds some insight in interviews with those who were there in the moment. But it doesn’t have much to offer in the way of new revelations, despite the conspiratorial teases.

Photo: Apple TV+

What Shows Will It Remind You Of? The three episodes of Peter Jackson’s The Beatles: Get Back are eminently rewatchable for the access they provide to a band trying to hold it all together as they simultaneously create some truly incredible music. And the 2005 TV movie I Killed John Lennon, available on Prime Video, features some of the same notable interviewees as Murder Without a Trial, as well as audio of interviews with Chapman. (And we must never, ever forget Jared Leto’s Chapter 27, in which he portrayed Chapman.)

Our Take: One of the more interesting aspects of Murder Without a Trial is how it rebuilds the media moments that followed the first reports of John Lennon’s murder. This was 1980, and while Dakota staffers Hastings and Many describe the usual scrum of fans and autograph seekers that would gather outside the building, the import of Lennon’s death only comes into focus as news anchors are handed sketchy reports to read live on air, and Howard Cosell agrees to make the announcement on Monday Night Football. The audio of Cosell and his production team deliberating over whether to announce it all – “this is going to shake up the whole world” – is fascinating, and illustrates almost in real time how big of a deal the brazen killing of a former Beatle really was.

John Lennon’s legacy lives on, and his status as an icon feels like the impetus for this docuseries. Murder Without a Trial – even though its last installment is called “The Trial” – has an unreliable source in its audio of Chapman, who attributed his motives to everything from a fascination with J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, to his anger over Lennon’s wealthy lifestyle, to chalking it all up to the will of God. The whiffs of conspiracy here are reachy and unsubstantiated, and seem designed to align Murder with today’s glut of true crime docs. There’s no question that Lennon’s killing was tragic. And the timeline of facts presented is valuable for anyone unfamiliar. But Murder Without a Trial isn’t blowing the doors off with any new information on one of the highest-profile celebrity deaths of the twentieth century.  

Sex and Skin: None.

Parting Shot: With Lennon dead and his alleged killer in custody, part two of Murder Without a Trial will shift into the investigation phase. What was Chapman’s motive? What is the significance of A Catcher in the Rye? And why was the FBI keeping a file on Lennon?

Sleeper Star: Cab driver Richard Peterson happened to be dropping a fare at the Dakota at the very moment Lennon was shot by Chapman. “That’s when I saw him,” Peterson says in an interview. “Lennon was walking in, and this kid says “John Lennon,” and he had – he was standing there, heavy set, chunky guy. I’m looking through the front window of my cab – I’m looking at him shoot him.” 

Most Pilot-y Line: NYPD police officer Peter Cullen was first on the scene, and his recollection of that night offers the first suggestion of Chapman’s mental state, since he made no attempt to flee. “We put the cuffs on, and it was strange. He didn’t fight us at all.”

Our Call: Viewers who aren’t familiar with the facts surrounding the killing will find them well-presented in John Lennon: Murder Without a Trial, buttressed by eyewitness interviews. But ultimately, this docuseries is a SKIP IT. Conspiracy theories alluded to don’t materialize, and we’re left with a docuseries that wants to apply the structure of generic true crime to a momentous celebrity death.   

Johnny Loftus (@glennganges) is an independent writer and editor living at large in Chicagoland. His work has appeared in The Village Voice, All Music Guide, Pitchfork Media, and Nicki Swift.