In January 2001, we're told, no less than eight executions were scheduled in the state of Oklahoma. By far the most prominent case was that of Wanda Jean Allen, whose story is documented in The Execution of Wanda Jean, an absorbing film directed and produced by Liz Garbus. The fact that the 41-year-old Allen was to become the first black woman executed in the United States in nearly 50 years was the principal source of her notoriety, but not the only one. There was no doubt that she had shot her lover, Gloria Leathers (whom she had met while serving time for a previous killing), in 1988. Yet those who took up Wanda Jean's cause argued that her apparent "neuro-psychological problems"--she was, they said, "borderline retarded"--hadn't been taken into account, or even brought up, during her trial. Over a decade later, a new defense team, led by an indefatigable legal investigator named David Presson, attempted to win clemency, an effort that is the focus of Garbus's film. Obviously, they failed. The Oklahoma Clemency Board immediately rejected her appeal, as did Gov. Frank Keating, despite the efforts of Rev. Jesse Jackson and others, and Allen, who remained preternaturally calm until the end, died on the scheduled date. So much for the facts. What The Execution of Wanda Jean is really about is the debate over capital punishment in general, and it's an argument that raged even within Gloria Leathers' own family (the victim's mother pled for mercy, while her sister argued that Allen should be "chain(ed) to a tree and beat(en) to death," because lethal injection, Oklahoma's preferred method, was too painless). Does a convicted double murderer deserve to die? Is revenge a good enough reason to apply this ultimate punishment? These are questions too profound to be answered in a 90-minute documentary, but at the very least, The Execution of Wanda Jean provides some serious and not easily digestible food for thought. --Sam Graham
In 2001 Wanda Jean Allen was given a lethal injection by the state of Oklahoma, making her the first black woman to be executed in America in fifty years. In THE EXECUTION OF WANDA JEAN, award-winning filmmaker Liz Garbus (The Farm: Angola, USA; Girlhood) continues her investigations into the American criminal justice system with the compelling story of convicted murderess Wanda Jean Allen. Allen was sentenced to death in 1989 after shooting her lover, Gloria Leathers, whom she met in prison while serving time for another killing. This quietly powerful film chronicles the tragically methodical way the state of Oklahoma proceeds to execute Wanda, a woman with a low IQ bordering on retardation, despite the deperate efforts of her family, legal team, and mental health and anti-capital punishment advocates. As pleas for clemency and legal maneuvers are gradually exhausted, there’s a chilling inevitability to Wanda’s plight, which she bears with a rare strength and introspection. THE EXECUTION OF WANDA JEAN is an intimate account of a uniquely American story. Its power lies in its portrait of simple human dignity in the face of inevitable death. DVD Features: Filmmaker Biography; Interactive Menus; Scene Selection
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