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The Execution Of Wanda Jean


The Execution Of Wanda Jean


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Wanda Jean Allen was convicted of murder in 1989, and sat on death row in Oklahoma until Jan. 11, 2001, when she became the first black woman legally executed in America in almost 50 years. Liz Garbus' documentary The Execution Of Wanda Jean records the ritual surrounding the execution, from the last-minute appeals to the gathering of protesters. Allen's legal team contends that their client is borderline-retarded, suffering from a mental impairment which leads her to react to stressful situations violently; they also point out to the clemency board that if her initial jury had known about her diminished faculties, she might not have been sentenced to die. The problem is that Wanda Jean Allen doesn't look or act retarded, or even psychotic. She's a pleasant, spiritual woman who, when she first sees lead attorney David Presson in the morning, always asks him, "Did you eat breakfast?" If anything, it's Allen's relatives who seem disturbed. A small but significant portion of The Execution Of Wanda Jean is devoted to the petty squabbles among Allen's siblings and cousins, many of whom appear to be overly concerned with getting their proper respect from the lawyers and reporters. On the other side of the aisle, the relatives of Gloria Leathers–Allen's former roommate and lover, before she became her victim–are split between vengeance and forgiveness. As for the clemency board, they hear both sides and ask few questions, apparently having made up their minds before the hearing. The latter half of The Execution Of Wanda Jean covers her final days, as the defense team (aided by a media blitz from a visiting Jesse Jackson) goes through the final series of challenges and prepares for the inevitable. The overweight, edgy Presson stresses out over failure after failure, smoking, drinking, eating bad food, and ultimately breaking down, mumbling and sobbing that legal execution is "the sickest shit I've ever seen in my life." Shot on video for HBO's America Undercover series, The Execution Of Wanda Jean minimizes music and effects, relying on artful, informative screen titles to explain the action and letting the action explain the rest. Garbus captures the details of law and order in the Bible Belt, where religion suffuses seemingly every minute of waking life, but where homosexuality and murder are still treated matter-of-factly by the justice system. Garbus resists the urge to play up racial differences, distaste for sexual preferences, or even the pro forma drum-beating of the death penalty's advocates and opponents. In documentaries, such use of real people as symbols tends to be callous, but The Execution Of Wanda Jean is anything but coldly simple.