French director Florent Vassault’s documentary follows a juror who sentenced a man to death and tries to contend with her decision several decades later.
Many movies have tackled the death penalty issue head-on, from certified weepies like Dead Man Walking to turgid dramas like Monster’s Ball to bracing non-fictional investigations like Werner Herzog’s Into the Abyss. Approaching the question from another, more subtle angle, Florent Vassault’s documentary Lindy Lou, Juror Number 2 follows the aftermath of a murder trial that sent one young man to the grave and one woman on a quest to find some kind of peace for putting him there.
Released theatrically in France after festival screenings at True/False, Sheffield and Human Rights Watch in New York, the film provides a sobering exploration of guilt, remorse and the ramifications of capital punishment — in this case not for the culprit or the victims, but for those people who condemned someone to die and had to live with their choices. Further fest dates should follow, as well as pickups by pubcasters and SVOD networks worldwide.
In 1982, a 20-year-old named Bobby Wilcher met two women in a bar in Mississippi, led them down a quiet country road and brutally stabbed them a total of 46 times. The police picked him up later that night; he was covered in blood, the murder weapon sticking out of his back pocket. A jury sentenced him to death a few years later, and after several appeals he was executed by lethal injection in October 2006.
One member of the jury was Lindy Lou Isonhood, and her experience on the Wilcher case would forever change her. In the years that followed the trial and verdict, she began to regret her decision and now describes herself as a “murderer” for having condemned Wilcher to die. (In a capital punishment case, any single juror can vote against the death sentence and thereby prevent the culprit from being executed.)
Director Vassault, who otherwise works as an editor on French comedies and other commercial fare, follows Lindy Lou on a long, winding road trip to visit her fellow jurors around the state, asking them how they have coped with their guilt and trying to find a little jury-box camaraderie long after the fact.
The doc doesn’t exactly question whether capital punishment should exist, even if Lindy Lou and a few others now seem firmly opposed to it. Instead, it explores the moral and psychological consequences of a system that allows ordinary people — a jury of peers — to determine whether another person should live or not. One juror describes a “crushing feeling” that they couldn’t escape, explaining how their “head and heart were in conflict with each other” with regards to Wilcher’s fate.
As Lindy Lou makes her rounds from house to house, we learn more details about the trial and its outcome: how Wilcher grew up in world of poverty and abuse; how Lindy Lou befriended the prisoner while he was on death row, becoming his only humane contact with the outside world (he would bequeath her all of his personal effects, including a calendar where his execution date is sadly marked with the description: “Die Today, 6pm”); and how the main reason he was sentenced to death doesn’t seem to be his crime, which was clearly premeditated, but the fact that he showed “no remorse” in the courtroom.
By the end of the doc, Lindy Lou manages to find some of the relief she was looking for, especially when she finally meets up with the trial’s jury foreman — a God-fearing Southerner whose home seems to contain more crosses than St. Peter’s Basilica. But Kenneth, as he’s called, understands the weight of their decision as much as Lindy Lou does, and was annoyed by the fact that many of the other jurors arrived at their verdict so quickly. “We’re getting ready to kill someone” is how he sums up what they were deliberating behind closed doors, although the death sentence was eventually reached in only a few hours.
Vassault, who also shot the movie, captures Lindy Lou’s voyage in well-framed compositions that silhouette her against the bucolic Mississippi landscape. Most of the people she speaks with live in sizeable houses with massive backyards and spacious living rooms, while a late visit to Wicher’s childhood home reveals the polar opposite: a small wooden cabin that was wrecked when his father once drove a truck right into it. We then learn that Wilcher wound up murdering his victims just a few miles away. As one person describes it, “His whole life began and ended here.”
Production companies: Andolfi, Studio Orlando
Director: Florent Vassault
Screenwriters: Cecile Vargaftig, Florent Vassault
Producers: Jean-Baptiste Legrand, Arnaud Dommerc
Director of photography: Florent Vassault
Editor: Lea Masson
Composer: Alexis Rault
Sales: Wide House