Liz Garbus’ The Execution of Wanda Jean is another heartfelt documentary examining the “human” side of the death penalty amid questions about its purpose. The film highlights flaws within the American legal system through examination of key errors in Wanda Jean Allen’s trial and appeals; it also shows reactions to Allen’s persona and punishment. Like Garbus’ previous films—The Farm: Angola (1998), Girlhood (2003), and The Nazi Officer’s Wife (2003)—this one focuses more on questions than answers.
Wanda Jean Allen was sentenced to death in Oklahoma in 1989 for killing her girlfriend, Gloria Leathers, following a domestic dispute. Allen’s trial revealed she had killed before, having served time for manslaughter after murdering a childhood friend (she had been released in 1983). Allen was presented throughout her trial as a competent woman aware of the consequences of her actions. However, the film reveals several factors to challenge this supposed competency, namely Allen’s low IQ, her lies on the stand that she graduated high school and attended college, and, most significantly, a doctor’s 1975 psychiatric evaluation that contained a recommendation she be afforded “some form of protective control”.
These contradictory elements of Allen’s story complicate the film. Garbus’ own positions on the death penalty and legal reform are indirectly apparent, as her storytelling skills take precedence. As much as the film makes an excellent case for law reform, its greater achievement is the development of its real life “characters.”
Among those interviewed are the Leathers and Allen families, Assistant Attorney General Susan Howard, and Allen’s attorneys, David and Steven Presson. Allen’s family struggles to accept her punishment, while the Leathers family is divided as to the purpose of putting her to death. Ruby Wilson, Gloria Leathers’ mother, is steadfast in her forgiveness of Allen and remains unconvinced execution is a just end. She states her belief repeatedly, during interviews with, Allen’s clemency hearing, and in the film’s closing moments during a conversation with her pro-death penalty son, Robert Ferguson.
Wilson’s defense of her daughter’s murderer raises one of the film’s key questions: who gains from the execution if the victim’s mother desires an alternate punishment? At the same time, Ferguson’s fear that Allen could be released from jail is fair, considering her brief first incarceration. But, as the movie suggests, every position on Allen’s punishment can be argued in multiple ways. The clemency board hears Allen’s case from multiple angles too, including Kaminsky’s 1975 recommendation and the admission by Allen’s lawyer in her 1989 trial of gross incompetence. The camera closes in on a clemency board member sleeping during the hearing. It pans the other members’ faces, and all but one appear to be daydreaming. Coincidentally (or not), that one attentive member, the only board member to question any of Allen’s defenders, is the only board member to vote for clemency.
Garbus’ concentration on the people behind these life or death decisions makes clear that imperfect people can’t sustain a perfect system. Should Wanda Jean Allen have been executed? According to the film, absolutely not. Garbus leaves her audience with images of another human involved in the mess, Allen’s legal investigator and appeals team head, David Presson. An upright and stoic handler-of-all-things, he is shattered by the repeated decisions against his client. Cigarette in hand, curse words flying, he dumps his political correctness and his hold on his own dignity and sanity as Allen’s execution nears. Referring to the event as “the sickest thing I’ve ever seen”, Presson is unable to contain himself. Garbus’ camera never leaves Presson as he sinks into the arms of an unnamed companion. His emotional devastation and incomprehension mirror our own.