“You can’t kill someone and then go home and wash dishes. It changes you from the inside out.” - Lindy Lou Wells Isonhood, Lindy Lou, Juror Number 2
Upholding the rule of law is a fundamental principle of a democracy. Doing so protects the rights of citizens, maintains order and limits the power of the government over its citizens.
Twenty years ago, Lindy Lou Wells Isonhood believed she was upholding the rule of law by serving on a jury. At the conclusion of the trial, a capital murder case, the jury handed down a death sentence to Bobby Wilcher, a Mississippi man convicted of a double homicide. Since then, Lindy has lived with an unbearable feeling of guilt over her decision. Determined to understand her remorse, Lindy embarks on a road trip across Mississippi to find her fellow jurors. A conservative former federal police officer and religious woman from the South, Lindy manages to tackle this oft-politicized topic with humor, an open mind and sincere curiosity.
In this lesson, students will have the opportunity to analyze, consider and respectfully discuss different perspectives on the death penalty by listening to Lindy’s conversations with her fellow jurors, conducting independent research and reflecting on their own beliefs. Students will consider the moral, ethical and constitutional arguments used by others to support or oppose the death penalty. Then, they will articulate their own view by writing a “This I Believe” essay.
Approximately one 90-minute class plus homework.
By the end of this lesson, students will be able to:
- Research, critically evaluate and summarize visual and written source material on the death penalty
- Discuss the emotional, moral and ethical impact of serving on a capital trial by listening to the viewpoints of jury members
- Cite a range of primary texts they used to inform their viewpoints on the death penalty
- Develop and write essays on their views of the death penalty using the guidelines from the “This I Believe” format
Internet access and equipment to show the class online video clips from Lindy Lou, Juror Number Two and for students to conduct research.
A Note to Teachers
This film contains mature content and conversations about the death penalty. If you suspect that parents/guardians might be concerned about the subject matter, you may want to send home a note prior to the lesson explaining that students will view clips from a film that examines a legal case involving the execution of a man in 2006. It may also be important to share that students will be writing about their own points of view on the death penalty, which may involve individual moral, ethical and religious connections.
The first section of the lesson is dedicated to establishing critical background information on the death penalty. Students will then listen to conversations between Lindy and her fellow jurors through film clips in order to develop their own POV essays.
Gaining Background Knowledge
To begin the lesson, students will gain fluency with the central aspects of the death penalty. Using the jigsaw format, divide students into five groups to research their individual content. Give them time in their expert groups to share learnings, then have them return to their jigsaw groups to share out what they individually learned.
Group 1: Terminology
In conversations students may hear the terms capital punishment and death penalty used interchangeably. To begin the lesson, have students research and discuss the definitions and come to a general understanding as a class of how to use each term accurately. See this page.
Group 2: State By State
Have students review several visual resources on the use (or non-use) of the death penalty in different states and be prepared to summarize their conclusions based on analyzing the visual materials.
- Pew Research Center’s interactive gif (Remind students to complete the map beyond 2015.)
- ProCon.org on the Death Penalty (Students can click on any state to learn more).
- National Conference of State Legislatures’s graphic on the status of capital punishment state-by-state
Group 3: Eighth Amendment
Have students review the history of the Eighth Amendment, paying particular attention to the clause on cruel and unusual punishments. Students may choose to research different views on cruel and unusual punishments as well.
Group 4: Current Statistics About the Death Penalty
Have students review information and current statistics on the death penalty. Example sources:
Group 5: Methods Used in the Death Penalty
Have students read the website from the National Conference of State Legislatures and scroll down and read through the methods of execution.
Introduce the Film and POV Exercise
Explain to students that they are going to watch a series of film clips of conversations between Lindy and fellow jury members who served on the jury in the 1994 capital murder resentencing trial of Bobby Wilcher. Instruct students to view and analyze the conversations in order to identify the point of view expressed by each jury member.
To keep track of the details in the interviews, students will create a table titled “POVs from Lindy Lou, Juror Number Two” and then use it to document the viewpoints, emotions and questions expressed in the interviews. The columns will have the following titles:
|Name and/or Number of Juror or Family Member||POV For Death Penalty||
POV Against Death Penalty
View Film Clips
Before viewing Clip 1, remind students to take notes in the appropriate column on significant statements made by either Lindy or the other people featured.
Clip 1: “There Are No Answers” (3:16 min)Featured: Lindy and Linda (juror number 13)
After watching the discussion of the first clip, share with students your notes on Lindy’s POV and Linda’s POV as a model. Invite students to add more reflections that they heard as a group in order to model how to analyze a clip for POV.
Clip 2: “It’s Been So Long Ago” (4:00 min)
Featured: Lindy and Pete (juror number 10)
After viewing and after students have completed their tables for Clip 2, discuss whether students noticed differences between Lindy’s conversation with Linda and her conversation with Pete? What did they observe?
Clip 3: “You Have to Live With It Every Day” (3:18 min)
Featured: Lindy, Allen (juror number 7) and Allen’s wife
Repeat viewing and analysis process, making sure to add Allen’s wife into their notes. Discuss with students whether they saw any differences in the conversation when a spouse was involved.
Clip 4: “Jury Foreman” (4:28 min)
Featured: Lindy, Kenneth (juror number one and foreman), Kenneth’s wife and Kenneth’s daughter
Repeat viewing analysis from Clip 3.
Clip 5: “Pebbles and Ripples” (1:57 min)
After the final clip, invite students to look over their tables and gather their general observations about the interviews that Lindy conducted. Have students share in small groups, or as a large class, the POVs they heard from Lindy and from the other jury members. Was anything new or surprising? If they had the opportunity to sit down with Lindy, what would they want to ask her?
Homework and Assessment:
Each essay must cite at least two sources that support the student’s POV. One must be from an interview heard in Lindy Lou, Juror Number Two and one must be from a credible primary source.
Have students read several editorials expressing a range of viewpoints in favor of or opposed to the death penalty. Ask each student to pick an editorial and write a letter counter to their own personal POV to the editor of the publication that published the chosen editorial, expressing support for or against the POV of the author. Here are a few samples:
The Washington Post, “The Supreme Court Should Strike Down the Death Penalty,” November 2, 2017
U.S. News and World Report, “How the Death Penalty Saves Lives,” September 29, 2014
The New York Times, “Capital Punishment Deserves a Quick Death,” December 31, 2017
CNN.com, “Time to Question Sanity of Death Penalty,” July 26, 2015
Have students watch the TED Talk “Lessons from Death Row Inmates” given by Texas attorney David R. Dow and then have them write letters to him sharing their personal viewpoints on his talk.
Have students create an annotated website bibliography on organizations working to abolish the death penalty, such as Equal Justice Initiative, and those working to uphold the death penalty, such as Nebraskans for the Death Penalty.
Engage your class in a discussion using this fact sheet from the Death Penalty Information Center that details a range of sociopolitical issues surrounding this issue. Ask students to examine critically all the statistics, including determining whether the sources cited are credible news sources.
Expand research to the use of the death penalty internationally. The Death Penalty Information Center consistently updates this page with the latest facts and figures:
The film’s official POV site includes a discussion guide with additional activity ideas and resources, steps to borrow the DVD from the POV Lending Library and other resources.
This list of questions provides a useful starting point for leading rich discussions that challenge students to think critically about documentaries.
This is the website of a group that works to end the use of the death penalty in the United States and change the national discourse on the issue.
This is a comprehensive site that offers statistics, research, issue backgrounders, legislation tracking, a state-by-state database and resources (including in Spanish).
The Pew Research Center presents polling results on support for and opposition to the death penalty.
This page and its links offer overviews of pro and con arguments on various aspects of the death penalty.
This group provides information on transformative justice alternatives that address trauma, health, racism and victim’s services.
This advocacy organization provides resources, as well as educational and direct action activities, including the Annual Fast and Vigil to Abolish the Death Penalty.
Many states have organizations dealing with alternatives to the death penalty. These vary in services but often provide state-specific statistics, legislative updates, policy statements, services and advocacy. Do an Internet search for the name of your state and the phrase “alternatives to the death penalty” to find local resources.