For Tuesday's "Explainer" column, Slate used the news of Mark David Chapman's denied parole request to delve into the details of parole interviews. Read the piece here.
There's no script for the interview, but in New York (where Chapman is imprisoned) parole commissioners look for candidates to take responsibility and show remorse. After some initial formalities, interviewers ask the inmate to describe his crime, then they let him talk about why he did it. This is where many prisoners trip up, trying to minimize or excuse their role—a big no-no if you're looking for release. Other prisoners waste their time outlining their exemplary behavior in jail, like educational accomplishments and employment. Parole commissioners are interested in these gold stars, but they can get the same information from prison records. What they want is a prisoner who knows himself well enough to explain why he committed the crime, and then convince them he won't do it again.
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Parole interview transcripts are available to the public. In Chapman's 2000 interview, he seems to have taken responsibility for his crime and expressed remorse. He described having been "full of anger and resentment" and notes that he unfairly judged Lennon. When asked why he would kill an innocent man, Chapman said, "I was feeling like I was worthless, and maybe the root of it is a self-esteem issue. I felt like nothing, and I felt if I shot him, I would become something, which is not true at all." But Chapman was, and remains, a long shot for parole, because his victim was famous. It's especially tough for people who killed cops, judges, or celebrities to win parole, perhaps in part because commissioners are political appointees.