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Lindy Lou Isonhood: Can You Move On After A Capital Punishment Trial?

Jun 21, 2019

Part 2 of the TED Radio Hour episode Moving Forward.

About Lindy Lou Isonhood's TED Talk

In 1994, Lindy Lou Isonhood served on a jury that sentenced a man to death. For years, she agonized over her decision. Today, she says, she's moved forward by speaking out against the death penalty.

About Lindy Lou Isonhood

In 1994, Lindy Lou Isonhood served as juror No. 2 on a capital murder case in Mississippi.

Her experience changed her perception on the death penalty and as a result, she became a humans rights activist, advocating against capital punishment.

In 2018, a documentary film was made about her story, entitled "Lindy Lou, Juror Number 2".

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

GUY RAZ, HOST:

On the show today - ideas about Moving Forward, which, as Nora made pretty clear, is different than moving on. Moving forward is about holding onto past experiences even when you could just try to forget.

LINDY LOU ISONHOOD: I guess the bottom line is I didn't want to forget.

RAZ: Yeah.

ISONHOOD: You know, what? I'm like this. Why would someone want to forget something if it makes them a better person?

RAZ: This is Lindy Lou Isonhood.

ISONHOOD: I was Lindy Lou Wells when all this stuff was going on. But I'm Lindy Lou Isonhood. And I'm from Yazoo City, Miss. I'm just a grandmother and a wife. I've been retired since...

RAZ: And the stuff that was going on that Lindy didn't want to forget - it happened in 1994 when she was assigned to serve as a juror on a case that would change her life.

ISONHOOD: This man had murdered two women. And I will say that it was a very heinous and atrocious crime that he committed. And I think the trial lasted four or five days. And what I noticed - I guess the first two days, I just kind of sit there and thought, man, this man is - he's a monster. He deserves the death penalty. I mean, here in Mississippi, that's not a subject that's really discussed. You're just kind of brought up in a culture that believes in the death penalty, so that was the attitude that I went into the courtroom with.

But the third day, something just struck me. This is not right. This is just definitely not right. I looked at him. And I thought, you know, if my son was 19 years old and if he committed a crime like that, I would definitely want him to be punished. But I wouldn't want him to be put to death by the state.

RAZ: Yeah. And so you saw him, and you saw a human being.

ISONHOOD: Right. I have to say it just strictly came from out of my belief in my God. And I mean, I can get real preachy on this, but I won't. But I thought about everything that I had learned in the Bible about, you know - that everybody on this earth is worth - I mean, God loves him as much as he loved me. God loved that murderer as much as he loved me. And who in the heck was I to sit there and say, you need to die?

Well, then the day that we did go in to deliver the verdict, the judge gave us instructions on how to deliver a verdict. And it was only one conclusion you could draw from those instructions, and that was the death penalty. Well, by that time, I had made up my mind. I did not want to give this guy the death penalty. I was going to give him life. Well, of course, someone in the jury said, you know, well, do you want him to get out? And I felt like I was just backed against a wall.

RAZ: Lindy Lou Isonhood continues her story from the TED stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

ISONHOOD: I gave up. I gave up and voted along with the other 11 jurors. And there it was - our broken judicial system at work. Collect your belongings. You are free to go. Do not talk to reporters.

My head is spinning. My heart is racing. I can't get a breath. When I get to my car, I throw everything on the back, and I just collapse into the driver's seat. I can't do this. I can't go home to my family that I haven't seen in a week and pretend to be happy. We had just sentenced a man to death. Now what? Just go home and wash dishes?

So here I am in my car. And I'm wondering, how is my life ever going to be the same? My life was kids, work, church, ballgames. Now everything felt trivial. I was going down this rabbit hole. The anger, the anxiety, the guilt, the depression - it just clung to me. I knew that my life had to resume, so I sought counseling. The counselor diagnosed me with PTSD and told me that the best way to overcome the PTSD was to talk about the trauma. However, if I tried to talk about the trauma outside her office, I was shut down. No one wanted to hear about it. He was just a murderer. Get over it.

Twelve years later, I learn that Bobby Wilcher had dropped all of his appeals, and his execution date was approaching. That was like a punch in the stomach. All of those buried feelings just started coming back. To try and find peace, I called Bobby's attorney. And I said, can I see Bobby before he's executed? In my mind, Bobby was going to be manic. But surprisingly, he was very calm. And for two hours, he and I sit there and talked about life. And I got to ask him to forgive me for my hand in his death. His words to me were, you don't have to apologize. You didn't put me here; I did this myself. But if it'll make you feel better, I forgive you. Three months later, he was executed by the state of Mississippi.

RAZ: So even after you spoke to him and he forgave you, were you still carrying that trauma?

ISONHOOD: Yes.

RAZ: Because I guess - what? - you felt that you had contributed to...

ISONHOOD: A person's death.

RAZ: ...A person's death.

ISONHOOD: Yeah. I feel like I have blood on my hands because I said, I should have been a stronger person, that I felt like my faith should have been stronger because I felt like I was being called to be on that jury and I was being called to stand up for that guy, and I didn't do it. And I've cried a lot because I looked at the system. I was beginning to look at the judicial system, and I was saying, to me, the judicial system is just like a - it's a big broken wheel is what it is, and it's almost like it's impossible to fix.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

ISONHOOD: I'm here to tell you my story because it was precisely 22 years later when a friend encouraged me to - hey, perhaps you need to talk to the other jurors. You've been through the same experience. Uncertain of what I was after, I did need to talk to them. So I set out on my quest, and I actually found most of them. One juror - and I don't know what was wrong with him, but he didn't remember anything about the trial.

(LAUGHTER)

ISONHOOD: Another juror, well, they just kind of regretted that it took so long to carry the sentence out. I'm thinking in my mind, jeez. Is this the response I'm going to get from everybody else? Well, thank God for Allen. Allen was a gentle soul, and when I talked to him, he was genuinely upset about our decision. And he told me about the day that the devastation really set in on him and hit him. He was listening to the radio, and the radio - they would have a list of names of men to be executed at Parchman Penitentiary, and he then truly realized what he had done. And he said, you know, I had a responsibility in that man's death. And he's never told anyone about it, not even his wife.

The next juror I met was Jane. Jane is now totally against the death penalty. Then there was John. John said his decision weighed on him, and it burdened him daily.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ISONHOOD: I found that more of them had regrets and remorse - four, maybe five people that did not. You know, they just thought he got what he deserved, and they didn't really care that we put him to death. I mean, it was just something they had to do. But there were some that it really, really bothered, and now, it's really strange to sit here and say there were more men that were bothered by it than women. So what I called myself was a silent survivor until I got the opportunity to speak out about it.

RAZ: It's almost like a different way to look at it, Lindy, but in a sense, like, through this trauma and grief that you experienced after being involved in a decision that put someone to death, it's almost like that had to happen for you to kind of find the voice that you have found because that would not have happened had you not been involved in this...

ISONHOOD: Exactly.

RAZ: Right?

ISONHOOD: Exactly. You know, I didn't understand it when it first happened. I didn't understand why I was chosen to be on the trial. I didn't understand why I was feeling the way I was. I didn't understand why my mind had changed. And now that I look back, yeah. You look back on things, and you go, everything played out just like it was supposed to because if I had never been on that jury, I'd have probably still been the eye-for-an-eye person. So I hate to say it, but I thank God I was there.

RAZ: One of the ways you decided to move forward was to kind of devote your life to speaking out against the death penalty.

ISONHOOD: Exactly.

RAZ: I mean, it almost sounds like this sort of cause or mission is maybe one of the most important parts of your life now.

ISONHOOD: It is, it is. After I did my TED talk, I said to myself, well, this is it. This is the end. I'll stay at home now because my husband still doesn't agree with me. I mean, he's very - he's still, you know, in favor of the death penalty. But after the TED talk, I just said, OK. That's the end of this. But since the TED talk, oh, my heavens. People are coming out of the woodwork to talk to me and to want to do things with me and giving me another voice. It's - it hasn't stopped. I mean, my husband said, I thought you said this was over. And I said, well, as long as people come to me and want to put my story out there, I'm going to do it.

RAZ: That's Lindy Lou Isonhood. She's now a human rights advocate. You can see Lindy's full talk at ted.com. On the show today - ideas about Moving Forward. Stay with us. I'm Guy Raz, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.