Over four days starting on June 29, death penalty abolitionists from around the country convened in Washington, D.C. for Starvin’ for Justice, the annual fast and vigil calling for the U.S. to abolish the death penalty. This highly visible demonstration, which took place in front of the Supreme Court, marked the 25th year that the Abolitionist Action Committee (AAC) convened for four days of grassroots advocacy, trainings, education and dialogue.
As part of their teach-ins, “Voices of Experience on the Death Penalty”, the AAC hosted a screening of Lindy Lou, Juror Number Two (broadcasting on POV July 16) at the United Methodist Church building adjacent to the Supreme Court. Lindy Lou Wells Isonhood attended the event and answered audience questions at a post-screening discussion. Other speakers included leading death penalty activists, family members of death row prisoners, survivors of wrongful conviction who faced execution, and a surviving victim who forgave a man who was sentenced to death, and worked to save him before his 2017 execution. The conversation was emotional, centering on the importance of compassion in dealing with both victims and perpetrators.
After the screening, POV caught up with Lindy to discuss her thoughts about the weekend, her experience making the film, and the conversations on forgiveness that the film has prompted.
POV: What are your thoughts about the anti-death penalty demonstrations in Washington, D.C. this weekend?
Lindy: It was surprising to me how peaceful these people are. When you see a protest rally on TV usually there’s a lot of screaming and violence, a lot of crazy things going on. And these people are not that way—that surprised me. I was accepting and loving everyone. I got to thinking: even though I’m as conservative as I am, I don’t see what being liberal or conservative has to do with the issue of the death penalty. You don’t have to be a liberal or a Democrat to be against the death penalty. I think people can be set in their mind and they just go with [their party’s position] instead of really searching something out to see what it’s like.
In the film, you had some tough, deeply personal conversations with people you barely knew. I’m curious whether you were always the type of person who struck up conversations with strangers or acquaintances, or if this was a new experience for you?
I’ll talk to anybody. If you sit by me, I’m going to speak to you. Whether you try to speak back, that’s your privilege. I’m not going to push myself on anybody, but I’ve never had a problem striking up a conversation with anyone. And that’s what I like to do: talk to different people. Because we’re all unique, but we’re still all people. When I meet someone that does push me off, I’m like, “Well, okay. Have a good day!” and that’s it. But I think about it later, and I just wonder why people are so on edge.
Do you consider yourself an activist?
No. I don’t. I think I’m just someone who’s trying to do the right thing.
How about civic engagement? Being involved in your community, at either a local or national level?
I really can’t do anything in my community. It’s just that people there are not interested. There is a guy from the local small-town newspaper who’s going to do an interview with me when I get home, and I’m glad I got to come here before he interviews me. Because now I’m going to have some new information, new resources to show him about this issue. I’m gonna let him know that I don’t understand why people in my community aren’t willing to discuss the death penalty—most of them are as bright as me, but that’s just not a conversation that we engage in.
In the film you mention there are some people who stopped talking to you after you had been openly critical of the death penalty. So have those people seen the film and has it changed their understanding of your experience?
We showed the film at a theater close to my hometown, at Crossroads Film Festival in Madison, Mississippi. A lot of my friends came, but I honestly believe they came because I was in the documentary. As far as connecting with the issue? I don’t think they connected with it. I had one or two people come down and say “Lindy, I’m sorry, I didn’t know you were going through that.” But it didn’t seem to have an impact on them. People there are so—I hate to say it—but they’re set it their ways.
Do you see yourself as a vehicle for starting conversations about the death penalty? You know, “Maybe if they love and care about me, they’ll start to care about this thing that’s important to me.”
To be frank, I remain friends with them, but…I wanted to name this film “Life in a Box,” because we all live in our little boxes. We’re all comfortable in that little box and we don’t want to get out of it. Those people that say they love and care about me, they do not want to get out of that little box. [Some people here] can behave crazy, but where I live is my family home, where my grandmother lived and my grandmother raised me. You know, it’s crazy, but it’s home.
I think a lot of people would say that other parts of the country, including more liberal or urban parts of the country, are also “in a box.” In a different box, but in a box just the same. Do you think that’s the case?
No, I don’t see that. Talking to a lot of people here, their views are quite different from mine, but we still connect—we still talk to each other. And we don’t do that in Mississippi. I don’t care about political views, I don’t care about liberalism, I don’t care about the Democrats. I speak to people.
What’s the secret to talking to people with different views without alienating each other? Is it that you don’t talk about political opinions?
Oh, I will! I know they always say don’t discuss politics or religion, but I do. You’re entitled to whatever your opinion is, and I’m entitled to mine, and I’m secure enough in myself [not to be shaken]. I let people know that I’m not trying to change your mind; I’m just telling you how I feel and I want to see how you feel. “Hey, let’s compare opinions.” I just think there should be more openness.
Can these conversations happen on the Internet as well, or only face-to-face?
Usually it’s face-to-face. For example, last night I met so many people and I got their Facebooks or email addresses and they got mine. Face-to-face, it’s easier to tell if a person’s being authentic or sincere.
Is there anything from your experience this weekend in D.C. that you will find useful when you go home and have more of these conversations about the death penalty?
Everything. Some of the stories I heard… oh my God. It actually opened up a lot of depressed feelings that started coming to the surface again. But that’s a good thing. After the screening was over I was able to get up and answer questions, but what I have learned this weekend is that these people are willing to help me in whatever way I need help. So I’m definitely going to be in contact some of them.
Did you feel that everyone was respectful in the Q & A session? Did you feel understood and listened to?
I did. I got so many hugs. Even the people who have been through tragedy in their lives—they were hugging me. This one guy from Utah, his brother had been executed by a firing squad. He said that he wished there had been a juror at his brother’s trial who could have reached out to his brother. They were all in the business of forgiving the person who had wronged them and I was on the flip side of that coin, because I was the one seeking forgiveness. So everybody [at the event] was great, everybody was great. I mean it.
It sounds like you are also in the business of forgiving yourself.
Everyday. I know in my faith that forgiveness gives freedom and I feel more [forgiveness] now than I ever had…but even when I think back to some of the things that were said at the Q & A, it just brings up [questions]. “Why did I do that?” I start questioning myself again. But…I’m fine. I’m gonna make it. I’m fine.
There’s something powerful about taking this experience that you lived through pretty much alone, and processing it with other people. One of the most moving aspects of the film is watching you connect with the other jurors and work through these moral questions together. And watching it in the audience is also a shared experience.
Right. And it helped me to see that I wasn’t out on this limb alone, that they could all connect to this film in one way or another and that they all had this remorse. Well, almost all of them. So that helped me a lot, showing that I wasn’t off on some crazy spree that I was going to lose my mind—it was real. [The film] made it real.
Sometimes all it takes is one person to say something out loud that others have bottling up and then that gives to everyone else the freedom to say their piece.
Exactly. And I really saw that in Ken Brant, who was the foreman of the jury. We had been on a radio talk show up in Canada, and I had wanted Ken to be a part of that. But he told me, “No”—it was still too close to him and too personal. He couldn’t talk about it. And I said, “Well, if you ever get to a point where you can, Ken, talk to me,” and he said “I’ll talk to you.” It’s really hard, even after all these years. You know, I keep thinking maybe one day I’ll have Alzheimer’s and forget the whole thing but you know… I’m damaged.
Do you feel that the experience of taking this road trip and making the film was healing for you, or was it painful opening up old wounds?
To tell the truth, it’s been more of a healing process. Last night was the first time I ever really experienced the opening up of wound or even picking at the scab just a little bit. But I think maybe I needed that. I’m old enough to know that in life you’ve got to roll with punches. In life, you can cave in, give in, become a recluse. Or you can live your life. And I’m more up for living my life.
What was it like to see yourself on film?
I hated it [laughs]. I told them last night [at the screening], I felt like I had that camera stuck in my face for so many hours a day—you know. You’re your own worst enemy.
Let’s talk about the filmmaking process—how did you build up the trust with Florent that allowed you to be so open on camera?
I love Florent. He and I got along so well. He’s like my—he’s my son. But it’s like you said, he had a very difficult view of the way I lived in Mississippi and I just shook up his ideals of [us]. I think God has blessed Florent with a sense of humor. We started off on that foot, so it was not difficult. And as time went on, I opened up more and more and more to him. At first I didn’t want to trust him because I thought, “He is just out there trying to make money off of me.” But then I realized he is interested in me, my family, my grandchildren—he is such a loving kind person. We got to be like family! When this is all over, I’m going to miss Florent.
I think that’s the underlying story of the film—you and Florent building this trust and connection despite your vastly different backgrounds.
It is, it is. I am a Republican and he is a socialist. I’m a believer with my whole heart and he’s an atheist. We talked about all of that, and it was not a problem. It’s just like coming here, to D.C.—you see the other side of the story. You don’t see what the national media shows. You see people here.
What about your grandchildren? Have they seen the film? What do you hope they take away from it?
They’ve seen it. I have now talked to my 16-year-old granddaughter about the sentence and she is pretty much against the death penalty. My son is still struggling with it, but my granddaughter says, “Dad, I don’t care what you think, I don’t believe in it.” So I’m working on her and my son just looks over at me and says, “Thanks, Mom!”
Is there anything else you want viewers to know that they didn’t see in the film?
That there’s a lot more to the story. [laughs] There’s so much more to the story. The film was only made from one angle—about getting in touch with the jurors—but there is so much more. I’ve talked to a lady about writing a book at some point, but I’ve got so much on my bucket list right now. A lot of people think, “Well, you don’t care about the victims.” Well, I did—I tried to contact the victim’s family and they didn’t want to talk to me. And the story about becoming Bobby’s friend? There is just so much more, so much more. But [those stories] will come at their appropriate time.
This film is the beginning of the conversation and it will be ongoing.
That’s right. “Beginning of a conversation,” that’s what this film is.