John Lennon: Murder Without a Trial, review: startling eye-witness accounts heard for the first time

John Lennon with his son Sean in 1977
John Lennon with his son Sean in 1977 - Vinnie Zuffante/Archive Photos

Everyone over the age of 50 remembers where they were when they heard the news that John Lennon had been shot. For a handful of people, that day remains horribly vivid because they were there. The concierge and porter of the Dakota building, the first police officers on the scene, and the doctor and nurses who tended to a dying Lennon at the Roosevelt Hospital all present their recollections in John Lennon: Murder Without a Trial (Apple TV+).

It is remarkable to listen to these first-hand accounts, so vivid and detailed despite the passage of more than 40 years. There is a danger that documentaries like these can be little more than true-crime titillation, but here there is a sense that those present wanted history to be recorded. The concierge, Jay Hastings, has never spoken publicly before. Asked why he is doing so now, he replies: “Time’s passed. We’re on the record. Once and done.” Also speaking on-camera for the first time are Richard Peterson, a cab driver who witnessed the shooting, and Dr Naomi Goldstein, the psychiatrist who assessed shooter Mark Chapman.

Other contributors to the first episode include two police officers who were first on the scene and the doctor who spent 45 minutes massaging Lennon’s heart before accepting that it was futile. The documentary takes us minute by minute through that night, and the witnesses describe their moment of realisation that this gunshot victim was one of the most famous men in the world. “It hit me,” says one of the cops, as he remembers kneeling down to check for a pulse. “I said, ‘Holy smokes, this is John Lennon’.”

The three-part documentary, narrated by Kiefer Sutherland, weaves in archive footage and news coverage of the case, which helps to illustrate the huge impact of this story back in 1980. Episode two focuses on the police investigation and episode three on the trial, and the focus in both of these is Chapman. The programme weighs up whether he was legally insane, as his defence claimed. His former lawyer and the lead detective on the case argue both sides. And we hear from Chapman himself, in previously unheard recordings made in prison, giving various explanations as to why he did it.

The list of contributors is impressive and the researchers have done a sterling job, although it is never explained if Yoko Ono was asked or declined to appear. There is one count on which the documentary feels on shaky ground; its toying with conspiracy theories. It is legitimate to mention these, and it is a fact that the FBI considered Lennon to be a threat due to his anti-war stance.

The theory that Chapman had been under the influence of MK-Ultra mind control has been around for decades. But the way these things are addressed – and conspiracy is trailed in the opening minutes – adds a slightly sensationalist tone, and the theories are soon cast aside without thought.

John Lennon: Murder Without a Trial is on Apple TV+ on 6 December

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