Darlene Selland still remembers the day she found out: the knock, being told to sit down. Her niece Tiffany had been murdered. For a long time, she and her family wanted the man responsible to die. Now, thanks to a high school play, they're not so sure.
A treasure chest of memories lies just to the left of the front door in the Selland household: a box of smiles and laughter eternally frozen in time; each photo its own little diamond of joy. But some of these gems carry darker undertones.
Selland has a photo of a blonde 19-year-old with sparkling blue eyes — her niece, Tiffany Frizzel. "You can look at her face and see her intelligence, her goodness, as well as her beauty," said Selland. "I look at it, and 30 years later I can't believe she's not here."
Frizzel was brutally murdered. The night before her death, she had set off for her freshman year of college. Classes were scheduled to start the next day.
Selland remembers the last time she saw her niece as the family dropped the young woman off at the airport.
We had just said goodbye to her when she had gotten on that plane and went to California. And the last thing she said to the family, walking down that airport walkway was, 'I'll be home for Christmas.' And she came home for Christmas, but she came home in a casket.
That was 1983. Flash forward almost 30 years to 2011, and Frizzel's killer is still on death row. No execution date is set. Selland's family is in a limbo of sorts, waiting for closure, until a simple play brought them face to face with their grief.
Selland's youngest son, Trent Selland, auditioned for his high school show: "Dead Man Walking." It's a play that argues against the death penalty, with death row inmate Matthew Poncelette as its lead character.
Trent Selland got the lead and explained how that impacted him emotionally.
Being Matthew Poncelette was the most I have ever been in touch with my emotion. It was the most I have ever been connected so deep with my own sadness, my own remorse, for something I hadn't even done, for something I was portraying. I was sorry for being Matthew Poncelette.
Trent Selland had never felt sorry for a murderer before, even a fictional one. To him, this had always been clear, black and white: you kill, you should be killed. Now he wasn't so sure. Maybe a killer could be sorry. Maybe a killer could change. "True remorse is a powerful thing," he said. "You can't help but feel bad. You can't help but watch this play and root for this murderer."
Trent Selland was born 10 years after Frizzel's death. He knew her story, but he had never known her. His mom saw the casket. Darlene Selland heard the coroner apologizing, saying he'd done everything he could.
She had no idea how she was going to react as she took her seat opening night and waited for the lights to come up on her son and her grief. She said that seeing her son behind bars hit her really hard. "That kind of took me back, to pictures I had seen and stuff, that kind of got to me," she said.
She also remembered being moved by the scene in which his character was finally sorry, and could finally weep, for what he had done.
It was so ironic that our own son humanized, for a moment, the man who had always been a monster for us. It was such an emotional experience that we came home and wept. I mean, 30 years later and we wept like we wept when we found out she had been murdered.
The Sellands' entire family, including Trent Selland's aunts and uncles, saw the show. They were moved by his ability to turn a monster into a man. One of the moments that stayed with Darlene Selland came at the end of the show. Just after the lights went down, faces of executed felons flashed across a screen, daring the audience to look back. And she did.
For the first time in 30 years, I was able to look at those faces and see human beings instead of monsters. So it was a pretty profound experience. This tiny high school play challenged our whole family to forgiveness.
That challenge is ongoing. Frizzel's murderer is not Matthew Poncelette. There will be no climactic moment of forgiveness for the man who has shown no remorse for his crimes. But, for the first time in 30 years, this family can look at a picture of someone on death row and see a man instead of a monster. For the first time in 30 years, this family has some closure; just maybe not in the way they'd expected.
This story originally aired on September 2, 2013.