Finding life in a life sentence
Serial killer David Berkowitz tries to finish well in a circumstance that drives many to despair
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On a December morning, the Shawangunk Correctional Facility, a maximum security prison in the Hudson Valley, was covered in a crunchy layer of snow. Guards counted heads first thing, which included that of inmate David Berkowitz, once known as the “Son of Sam,” a serial killer who terrorized New York City for months in 1976 and 1977 when the city initiated the largest manhunt in its history.
Berkowitz, 66, is now a little more hunched than when he entered prison, and his head is shaved bald. He feels free of the demons he said drove him to murder and describes himself as a Messianic Jew—a faith he considers the only way he has survived a life sentence that began with despair, suicidal thoughts, and fear of attacks. That despair is common among lifers, as others who have faced similar sentences shared. Though Berkowitz still has crushing days behind bars, he wants to spend his remaining years well.
Steve Nash, a Wesleyan pastor in New Jersey and friend of Berkowitz’s who has visited him for the last 25 years, said the inmates call Berkowitz “pastor,” which he doesn’t like, “but inmates label you one way or the other,” he said with a chuckle.
“There’s a lot of skepticism even from Christians about Berkowitz,” said Nash. “God chooses people that we would not choose.”
For my interview with Berkowitz, two guards brought me into an empty visiting room, covered in murals painted by another long-term inmate. Entering in a forest-green jumpsuit and carrying a worn copy of the New Testament and some handwritten notes about the Bible, Berkowitz sat down and began nervously when talking about himself. But he quickly relaxed when talking about the Bible. Leaving his New Testament unopened, he called up from memory Mark 5 and Luke 8, which recount the story of the demon-possessed man who lived among the tombs, cutting himself, screaming, and breaking apart his restraining chains.
“Here was the Lord coming into this extreme situation and saving this man’s life and delivering him from the demons that had him in such a grip. I love that story,” said Berkowitz. It reminds him of himself. Berkowitz remembered even as a child craving the darkness and spending hours under his bed or tunneled into a closet.
At the end of the Biblical story, the once-demon-possessed man begs to join Jesus. But Jesus tells the man to go back to his community to share what God has done for him, Berkowitz recalled: “What an irony that the man who once terrorized that community is going back there to talk about the redemption and the hope and the goodness of God. … I don’t deserve anything, any goodness from the Lord, but I’m telling you, God has delivered me.”
Young people may not know who David Berkowitz is, but he drew national attention over a year of attacks in New York City. After his capture in 1977, Berkowitz pleaded guilty to six murders and the wounding of seven others. He left one victim a paraplegic and another blind.
His publicity added to the fear around the crimes. At one crime scene he left a note declaring himself “the son of Sam” and Beelzebub. Sam was for Samhain, a Druidic demon he had been praying to as part of a Satanic cult. Berkowitz maintains he was demon-possessed when he committed the crimes. Court psychiatrists diagnosed him with schizophrenia, though he told me he had never been treated.
Another disturbing letter he sent to New York Daily News columnist Jimmy Breslin in the midst of the crimes—stating, “I am still here. Like a spirit roaming the night,” and threatening more murders—resulted in the most paper sales in Daily News history.
Women cut, bleached, or tied back their hair to avoid the look of the string of victims with long, brown hair. New York Mayor Ed Koch attributed his 1977 election victory in part to the “palpable” fear over Berkowitz that spread across the city.
Judges sentenced Berkowitz to more than 300 years in prison in 1978. At the time of sentencing, a state Supreme Court justice in the case said he would have sent Berkowitz to the electric chair if it had been an option. Another wounded victim at the sentencing said she’d “rather see him dead.”
But the victims faded into the background, while his fame as a criminal continued after he went behind bars. The apartment building where Berkowitz lived during the crimes changed its address from 35 Pine Street to 42 Pine Street to escape the spotlight, but visitors and camera crews kept coming.
As a result of the media frenzy, the New York Legislature passed a “Son of Sam” law preventing criminals from profiting off their stories. Director Spike Lee made a movie about the murders in 1999, and Berkowitz is featured as a character in the latest season of Netflix’s series Mindhunter. In that episode, a detective says to Berkowitz, “A hundred years from now, people will still know the name ‘Son of Sam.’”
Berkowitz doesn’t want to see any of the movies or hear any of the true-crime podcasts; he can hardly bear to talk about the crimes except as a dark time in his life. Berkowitz’s blog, Arise and Shine, has a page for an apology to his victims: “Not a day goes by that I do not think about the suffering I have brought to so many.”
“There’s a lot of skepticism even from Christians about Berkowitz. God chooses people that we would not choose.”
Some of his friends, detectives, and even the Queens district attorney at the time proffered the theory that others (perhaps from the cult he was a member of) helped commit the crimes. But Berkowitz pleaded guilty to all the killings, and he wouldn’t talk about it when I asked.
“If you come from a background where there’s a lot of tragedy, sordid tales, the Lord says to forget those things which are behind—not that you need to completely forget—but you don’t have to keep revisiting that,” he said. “Because the Lord has taken all my sins and thrown them into the depths of the sea, as the Scripture says, never to be remembered anymore. So why should I go fishing there and pull those things up?”
Scott Larson, head of Massachusetts prison ministry Straight Ahead, has worked with a number of lifers. He said once a criminal discusses a crime he or she committed, it’s hard ever to say the right thing: “It almost trivializes it or glorifies it—anything you say about it is not really remorseful.”
Berkowitz already relives the crimes when he goes to parole hearings every couple of years, which he says he attends only to “apologize and take responsibility.” Do you think about parole? I asked Berkowitz. “All the time,” he said.
He says he doesn’t deserve parole, “but at the same time I’m thinking, ‘Wow, if I was ever granted parole, all the good things I could do out there.’” Outside friends push him to pursue it, thinking of his potential ministry. But he wouldn’t ask anyone to advocate on his behalf at parole hearings, so he is torn. Other friends like Nash insist that he would never accept parole.
Prison minister Larson understands Berkowitz’s contradictory feelings: “Of course you’re going to say, ‘I don’t deserve parole,’ and of course, ‘Wow, what if I got parole.’ It makes sense that they would both be there.”
As decades pass, Berkowitz feels more and more isolated. No one in his family has spoken to him since his arrest. A search of “David Berkowitz” in The New York Times archives yields a litany of obituaries for people connected to the case in the last few years. One of his close friends died last year. Fellow cult members he was close to have also died.
Neysa Moskowitz, the mother of one murder victim, corresponded with Berkowitz and at one point talked about meeting in order to forgive him. But she couldn’t bring herself to do it. She died in 2006, but a close friend said she died forgiving “everyone.” Other victims don’t feel that way. One of Berkowitz’s shooting attacks blinded Robert Violante and killed his girlfriend. In a 2016 interview with the New York Post, he said, “I never got over the anger and bitterness.”
But Berkowitz lives on, surviving an attempt on his life at Attica early in his sentence that left him with a long scar across his neck. He had quadruple bypass surgery two years ago. The state has moved him to different prisons for security reasons, as it does for most long-term inmates. Berkowitz names a few Christians who come to visit him—one comes once a month, the others once or twice a year—but his community appears to be mostly within the prison walls.
Berkowitz didn’t want to talk about the specific heaviness of serving a life sentence, though he said he has “bad days” and is sometimes depressed. Others can attest to the despair that comes with a life sentence. Darryl Woods served almost 30 years of a life sentence for a drug-related murder in Michigan before receiving a commutation from Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder last year (Woods maintains he had no direct involvement in the murder). He began his sentence as a teenager at a prison with a reputation for stabbings and rapes.
“I was afraid at first. … I couldn’t believe I had found myself in this place,” said Woods. “Prison is a dream killer, and it’s a soul breaker. I watched it destroy and dismantle families. I’ve seen guys kill themselves.”
“You can ask for forgiveness and do as much as you can to try to have reconciliation. Sometimes it happens, sometimes it doesn’t.”
A year into his sentence, Woods found relief in Christian faith after his grandmother sent him audio tapes of sermons: “It was because of [God’s] mercy that I was not consumed,” he says now. But Christianity doesn’t win you points in prison: Other inmates ridiculed him as “soft” or giving in to a “white man’s religion.”
Larson added: “The culture in prison is who you’re going to align with, and if you align with God, it doesn’t get you a lot, at least in the beginning.”
Inside prison, Woods missed his children’s childhoods and funerals for his mother and grandmother. When we talked, he had just gotten off the phone with a 16-year-old facing a life sentence: “It’s almost like you’re on death row. You’re just waiting to die. If you don’t have that relationship with the Lord, it’s really a life of misery.”
Berkowitz grew up in a Jewish family that practiced Jewish traditions but wasn’t particularly religious. About 10 years into his sentence, a fellow inmate urged him to read the Psalms. Berkowitz resonated with the anguish and depression the ancient David expressed. One night he was reading Psalm 34:6, which he can quote by heart now (“This poor man cried, and the Lord heard him and saved him out of all his troubles”), and Berkowitz began to cry, turning off his cell light so other inmates wouldn’t see him.
“I got down by my bunk, like a little kid in the dark,” he recalls. “I said, ‘Jesus, God, I don’t know who You are, I don’t know if You have any interest in me. I don’t know if You hate me or what, but I just want You to know how sorry I am for the things that I’ve done wrong, how I hurt people, how I hurt my family.’ I just cried and cried.”
Days later he told the inmate who urged him to read the Psalms that he had asked Jesus to forgive him. The inmate, Rick, jumped for joy: “Oh, you don’t understand what that means … take my word for it, your life will never be the same.” Berkowitz shrugged it off, but he started going to chapel. A few months later Rick transferred out of the prison. “I never got to see him again, but Rick was right,” Berkowitz said.
His days at Shawangunk are difficult—having each aspect of life controlled, submitting to invasive searches, being on alert for other inmates with ill motives. But the days are meaningful too. Berkowitz works as a clerk for the prison chaplain, cleaning up the room before worship services or filling out paperwork. He prays for an eclectic group: youths in gangs, Native Americans, and an enclave of persecuted Jews in Tunisia.
He reads Scripture and writes for several hours a day on a special translucent typewriter approved for prisons, which he finds “therapeutic.” On this particular evening he will go out to the yard if he gets the chance, see the snow, trees in the distance, and perhaps some deer.
“No one can go back and fix things,” said Berkowitz. “You can ask for forgiveness and do as much as you can to try to have reconciliation. Sometimes it happens, sometimes it doesn’t. But the Lord wants us going forward with thankful hearts, you know? I feel I have a thankful heart because God has had mercy on me. My situation could be a lot worse.”