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‘John Lennon: Murder Without a Trial’ doesn’t do the music icon justice

Analysis by Brian Lowry, CNN

(CNN) — John Lennon created some of the most beautiful music ever recorded, and Mark David Chapman murdered him. That the latter receives the lion’s share of the time in the docuseries “John Lennon: Murder Without a Trial” speaks volumes about media culture, and how the popularity of true crime brings perpetrators the very notoriety that some of them seek.

Granted, the title gives away the emphasis of this three-part presentation playing on Apple TV+. The project does seek to give Lennon his due, describing the former Beatle as “one of the most outspoken peace campaigners the world has ever seen,” which made the horror of his murder in 1980 even more shocking.

Audio from a final interview with Lennon further drives home the sense of what was lost, as he talks about wanting to live and work a long time as he heads back into the studio, as well as being around for his young son, Sean.

At its best the docuseries captures the immediate outpouring of grief that greeted reports of Lennon’s death, from fans gathering in front of the Dakota, Lennon and Yoko Ono’s home, to the “Monday Night Football” team debating off camera how – and indeed whether – they could cut into the game with the breaking-news announcement. (Howard Cosell, who expressed skepticism, ultimately delivered the word.)

Still, the irony at work here is articulated by former New York prosecutor Kim Hogrefe, who makes a point during part three of referring to Chapman only as “the defendant” to avoid giving him any further publicity or the notoriety that he coveted. “It is incredibly unfortunate that he sought to bring that attention to himself by stealing the fame of someone like John Lennon,” Hogrefe says.

After the introductory chapter, which features interviews with police and ER personnel swept up in the chaos surrounding the shooting, much of “Murder Without a Trial” focuses on Chapman’s motivations and mental health, including his initial intent to pursue an insanity defense. That discussion incorporates the attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan three months later by John Hinckley Jr., who also employed that legal strategy, contributing to public skepticism at the time about its legitimacy.

Part of the conversation turns to the emergence of conspiracy theories fueled by the lack of a trial, including the government’s interest in Lennon’s anti-war activities. That’s just additional fodder, though, for the more salacious side of the story where “Murder Without a Trial” most consistently operates.

Narrated by Kiefer Sutherland, and directed by Nick Holt and Rob Coldstream, the docuseries opens by billing what will follow as “a journey into the mind of a murderer.” It also happens to make its debut along with the arrival of a new Beatles song, “Now and Then,” which features Lennon’s vocals.

While how much insight the program provides into Chapman’s mental state this many years later is open to debate and interpretation, the fact that it goes into that while devoting less time to Lennon’s life and musical legacy perhaps says as much about us, both then and especially now, as it does any of the principals.

“John Lennon: Murder Without a Trial” premieres December 6 on Apple TV+. (Disclosure: Lowry’s wife works for a unit of Apple.)

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