“Lindy Lou, Juror Number 2” is one of the most sobering and powerful documentaries about a political issue I’ve seen in years.
It’s no Michael Moore-style propaganda film. Nor are the sing-song title and the fact that it was produced by a French company reliable clues to the subject matter.
The film follows one woman’s journey to examine her role as a juror in a Mississippi death penalty case.
There’s no inmate whose life we can advocate for. He was executed years ago. And there’s no hint that maybe the system got the wrong man, something the wonders of DNA forensics might overturn. Bobby Glen Wilcher, at the age of 19, most certainly slashed two women to death. He never expressed a shred of regret. Not in the 24 years that he was on Mississippi’s death row before being executed in 2006.
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Lindy Lou Wells Isonhood is a conservative grandmother who, along with 11 other jurors, helped make the unanimous decision in the capital murder case. The film follows along as she tracks down the other jurors 22 years later to find out if they are as disturbed by what had happened as she has been.
Or as she says in the film, “I couldn’t let it go.”
“I can’t say that I’m totally against the death penalty,” she said as the film toured Missouriwith the help of Missourians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, with plans eventually to show overseas.
In the documentary, you watch her driving back county roads where poverty is rife, and you glimpse the sprawling, manicured lawns of better-heeled jurors. All of their views are represented as told to Isonhood.
She’s perturbed by the male juror who can’t seem to recall much about the trial at all, as if he was asleep and unaware of the gravity of his vote condemning a man to death by lethal injection. One juror did a “180 flip” from her decision after she survived cancer and began to value every moment of her own life, and that of others. And she’s relieved to find the foreman who shares her deep thoughts and self-doubts.
This is how she sums up her philosophy on capital punishment: “I’m not here to force anybody to change their mind. You have to vote your own moral conscience. But just don’t go in there blind, dumb and happy.”
That’s how she would describe where she was when she joined the jury at the age of 42. “Inadequate,” she says, to describe her fitness to make such a weighty decision.
At the time, she thought that there was no chance that Wilcher could have gotten life without parole. She thought there was a chance that he could be set free and she didn’t want that on her conscience either.
Ten years after the trial Isonhood sought the convicted murderer out, meeting him face to face four times. They became friends. She learned about his family and met them, too. She learned the dire stories of Wilcher’s youth, about his abusive, alcoholic father and his time as a teenager at a juvenile detention center, where he was raped. She learned about his troubled marriage. Besides his attorney, Isenhood was his only visitor. His mother was in prison for selling prescription drugs when her son was executed.
Isenhood felt empathy, but also revulsion for his actions. The women were stabbed more than 20 times each.
Most people know they will never personally face the question of sentencing another man or woman to death. Even if they live in one of the 31 states with the death penalty, capital punishment is under siege — a bit like abortion nowadays. States are waging protracted legal battles to keep secret the compounding pharmacies that mix the lethal concoctions used in executions. If the suppliers become known, they risk massive public backlash and boycotts. Executives and the pharmacists involved become pariahs, like abortion doctors.
But activists hounding capital punishment into oblivion isn’t the same as society coming to terms with the moral dimension of enshrining the death penalty in law.
And that’s the power of “Lindy Lou, Juror Number 2.” Isenhood calmly asks people to think about the death penalty deeply, to examine how they might feel if faced with condemning another human being to death. Their meditations on life, death and justice are raw and direct — and necessary for all of us to hear.