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I Am a Killer: Released and the challenges of forgiveness and rehabilitation

The true crime documentary from Netflix follows the case of Dale Wayne Sigler, only one of seven people in Texas history to be released after previous receiving the death sentence.

(Image: Netflix)

FCC Rating: TV-MA
CSM Rating: NR
Reel Rating: 3 out of 5 reels

Forgiveness is essential to Christianity, but so is justice. St John Paul II, in Dives in misericordia, spoke of “the fundamental link between mercy and justice spoken of by the whole biblical tradition, and above all by the messianic mission of Jesus Christ. True mercy is, so to speak, the most profound source of justice” (par 14).

How this applies to crime and punishment in specific instances is often difficult to gauge and judge, and often results in challenging moral decisions.

I Am a Killer: Released, a true crime documentary from Netflix, reveals some of these challenges while presenting a real-world test sample of rehabilitation.

After spending thirty years in prison for murder, Dale Wayne Sigler is released; now director Itamar Klasmer will spend the next few months documenting him as he attempts to create a new life on the outside. While the opportunities are few, some people try to give him another chance, while others are much more hesitant.

In 1990, Sigler was sentenced to death for murdering a Subway employee, John William Zeltner Jr., as part of a robbery. The details are grisly. Sigler shot Zeltner several times in the back, even after it was clear he was dead. When arrested, Sigler immediately confessed, but without a sign of remorse. Yet a technicality commuted his sentence to life in prison, eventually paving the way for parole. While in prison, Sigler became an Evangelical Christian and began to face the horrors of his life, including childhood abuse, drugs, abandonment, and sexual confusion.

In 2019, he was finally granted parole under strict conditions. He moved in with Carole, an elderly woman with whom he struck up a friendship as a pen pal while incarcerated. Slowly, he moves back into society by attending church, visiting his mother, and going on various job interviews.

At first glance, Sigler’s intentions seem genuine. He never denies his crime and frequently expresses deep guilt. “I deserve death,” he says more than once. Yet, since God saw it fit to “give him a second chance,” he feels a responsibility to make the most of his remaining life. Sigler is only one of seven people in Texas history to be released after previous receiving the death sentence. He goes well out of his way to demonstrate his new character. At church, he gives testimony about God’s mercy in his life. In a touching scene, he washes Carole’s feet in a sign of gratitude for her generosity towards him. He does not want a book deal or reality show. He just wants to be a trucker with a small house and a local prison ministry. He is happy enough just being on the outside of prison.

There are those, however, who are not so convinced by Sigler’s conversion. Zeltner’s family is especially upset and believe Sigler is manipulating the system. They have good reason. Originally, Sigler said he shot the victim as part of a robbery. Years later, he changed his story. He claimed the victim had sexually assaulted him, and he committed the robbery as an excuse for revenge. Yet, despite this new claim, Sigler still insists that he was in the wrong. He felt compelled to reveal this information out of a sense of honesty. In some ways, it makes him even more guilty as the murder was premeditated.

Out of curiosity, I looked at some online comments about the show, and the consensus appears to be that Sigler is still a monster. Many reviews see Sigler’s changing narrative as an attempt to cover up his own actions and take advantage of a lonely, old woman. One person interpreted Sigler’s foot washing ceremony as a form of “grooming” to earn Carole’s trust.

Jesus warned about false prophets and wolves among sheep, yet he also spoke about forgiveness and mercy. Indeed, there quite a few violent and murderous people who have converted and become saints. You will, as Scripture states, know them “by their fruits” (cf. Mt 7:15-20), even as only God can judge the heart. It is simply too soon to see the fruits of Sigler’s release, but he deserves a chance to demonstrate his harvest. At the same time, it is just that he will be on parole for the rest of his life. The fact that he understands this and accepts its points in his favor. Only time will tell.


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About Nick Olszyk 144 Articles
Nick Olszyk teaches theology at Marist Catholic High School in Eugene, Oregon. He was raised on bad science fiction movies, jelly beans, and TV shows that make fun of bad science fiction movies. Visit him online at his website, Catholic Cinema Crusade.

4 Comments

  1. I’d be less worried about his release if he purposely killed his sexual molester than an innocent Subway employee during a robbery. It would better explain his actions.

  2. This reminds of Barbara Graham, the first woman to be electrocuted in San Quentin. Hers is also a story of redemption. In the movie made about her, I Want to Live, it is only hinted at that after a priest visited her in prison, that she went to her death in peace. In fact, she had a big return to the faith of her troubled childhood. The book about her life documents more of her Catholic childhood, and how she was seen to be saying some prayers like the Hail Mary prayer right in the electric chair, that she became ethereally beautiful. She is, in fact, buried in a Catholic cemetery in San Rafael, named after Archangel Raphael, the healer.

  3. With current “laws” you might as well sentence any felon to death. Jesus indicated through his forgiveness of the good thief that a person can repent at any time before death and gain eternal life, but our current unjust society attaches a virtual lifelong stigma to anyone convicted of a felony which treats him as sub-human.

    Even people who have committed serious crimes have a right to a job. Perhaps they may not be able to gain entrance to any job, but they still need to be enabled to support themselves and any dependents.

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