The Execution of Wanda Jean

by Tobias Peterson


Caught in the Gears

The execution of the mentally afflicted in America has raised a debate within a debate. While there are those who oppose the death penalty outright, a great many (and 38 state governments) hold to the notion that capital punishment is an appropriate sentence for particular crimes. Beyond the legal specifics, the popular notion of criminal intent underscores the enforcement of the death penalty, removing the ultimate responsibility for the criminal’s execution from the government’s hands and placing it squarely in the individual’s—as in, “You got yourself into this mess.” But the question of criminal intent becomes much hazier when mental disabilities are brought into the picture.

The recent Andrea Yates verdict highlights this problem. While a Houston jury found Yates, who drowned all of her five children, mentally fit enough to stand trial and be found guilty, her sentence of life imprisonment (versus lethal injection) reflects some doubt as to whether this heinous act was the calculated atrocity of an inhuman monster, and suggests that perhaps, it was the deranged action of a legitimately sick individual. The legal difference here is a question of sanity (knowing but not caring about the line separating wrong and right) and insanity (not knowing to begin with).

cover art

The Execution of Wanda Jean (hbo)

Director: Liz Garbus, Rory Kennedy
Creator: Rory Kennedy
Cast: Cast (as themselves): Wanda Jean Allen, Steve Presson

Medical science has come a long way in diagnosing and treating disorders of the brain, but debate continues to circulate around social delineations between psychological disorders and “pure evil.” This same debate is at the heart of The Execution of Wanda Jean, part of HBO’s America Undercover documentary series. The film begins three months prior to the titular event, and chronicles the inevitable conclusion of Wanda Jean Allen’s life. Sentenced to death by the state of Oklahoma for the murder of her lover, Gloria Leathers, Allen had served two years for a previous homicide in 1981 but had been released. (Members of Allen’s legal team speculate on camera that her death is going forward to make up for the embarrassment she has caused the Oklahoma legal system.) The film does not gloss over Allen’s criminal past, nor does it ignore the victim’s relatives, interspersing interviews with both the Allen and the Leather families throughout the film. For these efforts at balance, however, Wanda Jean is the documentary’s most captivating figure.

Despite her sentence, Allen is consistently upbeat, charismatic, even jovial. Her religiously fueled optimism (she frequently and enthusiastically quotes scripture) is unflagging, and she is often shown consoling her own lawyers, led by Steve Presson, during her long but unsuccessful appeals process. Allen is also highly articulate; “too good,” as one of her lawyers puts it while preparing her for her clemency hearing. Though her case hinges on the legitimacy of her mental impairment (a childhood accident damaged the frontal lobes of her brain, impairing her self-restraint), her outward appearance, speech, and mannerisms don’t reflect any such affliction.

And it’s clear that Wanda Jean’s outward appearance of normalcy is all that factors into the decisions handed down by the various appeal boards. Presson also points out that her race (African American) and sexual orientation (Allen is a lesbian) already provide two strikes against her in the conservative eyes of this Bible Belt state. During her final clemency hearing, the defense presents evidence that Allen’s IQ was 69 at the age of 15 (classifying her as “mildly retarded”) and calls upon a neurological expert to testify about the damage to her frontal lobe and the corresponding impairment to her decision-making ability and self-control. In an interesting turn, Gloria Leathers’ family also testifies on Allen’s behalf. Leathers’ brother notes that he has no particular desire, twelve years after the murder, to see Wanda Jean put to death. In reaction to the defense’s testimony, the clemency board—consisting of (according to the documentary’s written commentary) appointed, part-time members who are not required to have any experience in criminal justice—listen passively and are shown asking only one question throughout the hearing. They vote immediately to deny her request, pushing Allen another step closer to her execution.

The steady unraveling of hope for reprieve makes The Execution of Wanda Jean especially frustrating to watch. Still, Wanda Jean’s hope remains undeterred and wild rumors circulate among her family members about the possibilities of her pardon. As the documentary progresses, however, Steve Presson and the rest of Allen’s legal team are repeatedly disappointed by clemency boards, appellate courts, the Governor of Oklahoma, and, finally, the Supreme Court. Hours before the execution, Presson is frantically working the phones in an effort to get a last minute appeal. During his last permitted telephone conversation with Wanda Jean, the two are disconnected, only increasing the lawyer’s tension, hand-wringing, and evident desperation. Not even the very public intervention of the Reverend Jesse Jackson on Wanda Jean’s behalf is enough to slow down the apparatus of her execution.

The specter of this mechanized legal system is the lasting impression of The Execution of Wanda Jean. Despite questions about her mental state, despite the expressed wishes of her victim’s brother and mother, despite Wanda Jean’s prayerful optimism, the process of her execution is relentless. While debate may still take place outside prison walls about the possibility of criminal guilt in the mind of a mentally afflicted person, the film shows very clearly that there is little room for such a conversation once sentence has been passed.

The final credits of the film are interspersed with scenes from Wanda Jean’s viewing and burial. In the film’s last scene, her casket is shown dangling wildly from a cable in the jaws of a bulldozer, as it is moved to her gravesite. The shot is an apt one, concluding the story of a life ended in the unyielding machinery of the criminal justice system.

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//Mixed media