"The Execution of Wanda Jean" shows the grueling process of fighting an Oklahoma woman's upcoming execution in a case that may not generate sympathy but illustrates the mundane workings of the death penalty.
By JOSHUA TANZER
One little transitional moment between scenes tells us quite a bit about the subject of "The Execution of Wanda Jean." The voiceover is a car radio, apparently, on which the Oklahoma News Network is reporting on upcoming executions as if they're farm auctions or Sooners games.
Eight executions are slated for this month, the most ever in a single month for a state, tying the national record held by Texas.
|THE EXECUTION OF WANDA JEAN|
|Directed by: Liz Garbus.|
Produced by: Rory Kennedy with Nancy Abraham, Julie Gaither, Liz Garbus, Sheila Nevins, Chandra Simon..
Featuring: Wanda Jean Allen, Steven Presson, Rev. Robin Meyers, Sandra Howard, Mary Allen, Rev. Bill Allen, Ruby Wilson, Greg Wilson, Rev. Jesse Jackson..
The first, Robert Clayton on Thursday he'll be followed by Eddie Trice on the 9th. Then the first woman to be put to death in Oklahoma since the reinstatement of the death penalty and also the first black woman to be executed since 1954, Wanda Jean Allen. She's slated on the 11th.
Floyd Medlock on the 16th, and then it's . . .
Wanda Jean is just another passing resident on death row, and an unexceptional case in almost every way she's guilty of the crime, she's no saint, and she's not even a very likeable person. If we're to get emotionally involved in her story it's not because she's a romantic or wronged heroine it's because we need to understand the people and the process better and what the death penalty says about us as a nation.
|The law over the last 30 years has been honed to push cases like this through to the death chamber, regardless of complications, and we see its effect through this film.|| |
The one extraordinary aspect of this case is that Wanda Jean is gay and has been convicted of killing her own girlfriend. Her lawyer insists that Bible Belt homophobia is a factor in her sentence, and Assistant Attorney General Sandra Howard does betray a contemptuous sneer under her professional mask when she shows a threatening letter that Wanda Jean signed "Gene."
"Wanda would sign her name 'Gene.' That's when she would consider herself to be the 'male' in the relationship," the prosecutor says, adding fussily, "if there is such a thing in these relationships."
But the film doesn't focus on this issue it focuses on the mechanics of making and, as the title reveals up front, losing a death-penalty appeal. When Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun said famously that he would "no longer tinker with the machinery of death," these are the nuts and bolts of the machinery he was referring to.|
Most strikingly, we see the system grind forward in its slow but relentless drive to kill Wanda Jean, in spite of inadequate defense counsel, evidence of mental retardation, appeals from the victim's own family to spare her life, and even what appear to be outright lies by the prosecutor. The law over the last 30 years has been honed to push cases like this through to the death chamber, regardless of complications, and we see its effect through this film.
It's a film, however, that will change few minds. If you support the death penalty, you'll take unreserved satisfaction in Wanda Jean's fate. If you believe that state-sanctioned murder erodes our humanity, you will share her legal team's desperation as they try to save her life. You will emerge with a clearer view of how the gears of justice grind on and the death report comes to share airtime alongside the farm report.
|SEPTEMBER 7, 2002|
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Reader comments on The Execution of Wanda Jean:
So Sad from Patricia A. Cappo, Apr 29, 2003
So Sad from Carmesha, Jun 14, 2003
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death from senecia jones, Jul 29, 2003
so sad from Patricia, Haiti, Oct 1, 2003
wanda jean from delpizerre, jean-marie, Oct 19, 2003
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