Ex-Army sergeant gets 48 years’ prison in 2015 murder of child’s mother

An abusive stepfather, a mother who failed to protect him, lingering trauma from wartime military service and a trail of broken relationships were all pieces of baggage John Chapman carried with him into his final confrontation with Vanessa Williams three years ago.

It ended with more than 23 stab wounds that killed Williams, the mother of one of Chapman’s children. And it became the backdrop for a murder case that could have made Chapman the first man in nearly two decades to be sentenced in Palm Beach County Circuit Court to die.

On Tuesday, nearly a month after jurors spared the 29-year-old from a death penalty fight with a lesser second-degree murder conviction in a trial where Chapman argued self-defense, he and his lawyers were hoping that Chapman’s previous traumas would lead Circuit Judge Jeffrey Colbath to give him a sentence of less than the 25-year minimum recommended sentence.

Instead, after an hours-long emotional sentencing hearing, Colbath gave the 28-year-old nearly twice that time — 48 years in prison.

“I don’t think there was an ounce of self-defense in this case,” Colbath said after announcing his sentence. “I think it was a second-degree murder case. I think the jury got it right.”

The sentence was less than the maximum life sentence that Assistant State Attorney Reid Scott had sought, but rejected arguments from Assistant Public Defender Scott Pribble, who along with Palm Beach County Public Defender Carey Haughwout argued that Chapman should get a lower sentence for several reasons.

Among other arguments, Pribble said Chapman would have never stabbed Williams had she not first pulled a knife on him as they fought in a pickup truck outside a suburban Boca Raton apartment complex after a tumultuous night of arguing, drinking and drugs.

Williams’ parents, Ninett Martinez and Rupert Williams, both testified during the sentencing and asked Colbath to put their daughter’s killer, their grandson’s father, away for life.

Martinez said she told her daughter she didn’t like Chapman early in their relationship. Williams said Chapman beat his daughter and that she was afraid to call police.

When it was his turn to speak, Chapman said it was Williams’ ex-husband, Joseph Bristol, who abused her and that her prior history of abuse prevented her from being able to “fully trust” him.

Chapman’s words came after a fellow soldier who served with him in Iraq testified about the lingering combat stress both he and Chapman suffered. A close friend of Chapman’s, now a high school teacher in Detroit, and Shelly Dockery, the Miami-based college professor whose home Chapman was in when police arrested him, both also testified on his behalf.

A forensic psychologist outlined for Colbath the abuse Chapman suffered as a child, saying that his way of coping was to emotionally and mentally detach himself, prompting a habit of dissociation from emotionally charged situations that only deepened with his time in the military.

Chapman told investigators he “went into robotic mode” when he stabbed Williams on April 18, 2015. He later dumped her body in a ditch on Smith Sundy Road west of Delray Beach, along with other items from inside the pickup truck.

Although he expressed hate for Williams when he spoke to investigators, Chapman on Tuesday told Colbath he loved her.

“I’ve come back from war with invisible wounds, and those same wounds led to the incredible loss of someone I loved,” Chapman said.

Scott told Colbath that despite Chapman’s prior service to the nation, he wasn’t thinking of anyone but himself in the early hours of April 18, 2015. After the sentencing, Williams’ parents agreed, but added that they took some solace in the sentence they think makes it more likely than not that Chapman will die in prison.

“At least we’ll never see him again,” Martinez said.

“Maybe he’ll get out and he’ll be able to see his grandchildren,” Rupert Williams added, shaking his head.

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