The death penalty is inherently controversial on its own merits (or lack thereof, depending on one’s point of view). But when the person to be executed is an African-American lesbian who’s borderline mentally retarded to boot, the volativity of the issue can reach epic porportions.
Wanda Jean Allen was all of the above. There was also no doubt that she was guilty of murder twice; the first time in 1981 and then again, shooting her lover Gloria Leathers in eerily similar circumstances following an argument in front of the Oklahoma City Police Department. Guilt or innocence, therefore, plays no part in this film’s high drama.
Instead, we pick up Wanda Jean’s story some three months before she is scheduled to be the first woman executed in Oklahoma and the first black woman executed in the United States. Charismatic, irrepressibly upbeat and quick with a smile or a hug, she’s waited on Death Row for twelve years. Such spirits buoy her legal team as they prepare her for a crucial upcoming clemency hearing. They hope that the introduction of evidence regarding her mental state — evidence the jury never heard in her original trial — will be enough to convince the Clemency Board to grant Wanda Jean their first-ever clemency and commute her sentence to life without parole.
“The Execution of Wanda Jean” is a powerful and emotionally draining film, although perhaps not primarily for the reasons director Liz Garbus intended. Though much of the film initially centers on interviews with Wanda Jean’s family and the family of her victim, Ms. Leathers, that’s not where the real resonance lays. Unfortunate as it is to say, this is all familiar stuff. We’ve seen plenty of similar such interviews with other poor and uneducated folks before. Thus, though it may sound callous, while the approaching deadline conjurs up a mælstrom of emotions for both sets of families, it rings relatively flat for the conditioned viewer.
Believe it or not, most of the empathy here is with Wand Jean’s legal team. Yes, the lawyers. The film really becomes compelling during the frantic last few days before the execution date as the team works their ever-dwindling options right down to the last minute. It’s fascinating watching them fight so hard and become so emotionally involved in their desperate, uphill attempt to save the life of a two-time killer. By the end of the film, their vigil almost overshadows the fact that their client is about to be put to death.
“The Execution of Wanda Jean” is a gripping documentary. Regardless of personal feelings about the death penalty, the one thing this film makes abundantly clear is that death penalty or no, some occasions in life have no winners.