The Execution of Wanda Jean (review)

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While it’s unlikely to change any minds on the subject of capital punishment, documentarian Liz Garbus’s disturbing examination of the execution of Wanda Jean Allen is worth a look by those on both sides of the issues, if only for the perspective it offers, one the public rarely sees. In jailhouse interviews and in her interactions with her appeal lawyers, Allen comes across as pleasant and rather blissfully unable to grasp the enormity of her situation. Indeed, her lawyers point out that she is borderline retarded, with an IQ of 69, and suffers from “cognitive dysfunction,” facts that were not presented to the jury that sentenced her to death in 1988 for the murder of her lover. Believe, if you want, that this does not entitle her to the bleak clemency her lawyers seek, life in prison without possibility of parole; believe, if you want, that the fact that she is black and homosexual (her lover was a woman) in deeply conservative Oklahoma did not expose her to insurmountable prejudice on the part of the prosecutors; believe, if you want, that the fact that the family of victim does not want to see Allen executed should have no bearing on the possible commutation of the sentence. What is irrefutable here is that the only people being punished by Allen’s execution are Allen’s family. Allen’s distressing cheeriness in the face of death — what will turn out to be a pain-free lethal injection — is evidence enough that she has no idea what’s going on and is in no way suffering for her crime. But the anguish of her traumatized mother and siblings is heartbreaking. This is the angle we never see: that state-sanctioned killing does little but create one more grieving family.

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