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HBO presents
The Execution of Wanda Jean (2001)

"Please let me live. Please let me live."
- Wanda Jean Allen, convicted murderer sentenced to death, to the Oklahoma Board of Pardon and Parole

Review By: Jon Danziger  
Published: January 12, 2006

Director: Liz Garbus

MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 01h:27m:52s
Release Date: November 29, 2005
UPC: 767685975336
Genre: documentary

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A- AB-B- D

DVD Review

The fierce public debate over the recent execution of Stanley "Tookie" Williams demonstrates how visceral the discussion over capital punishment remains in this country, and even the most ardent defenders of the practice would have to admit that our system is an imperfect one. The sheer number of those sentenced to die, combined with legal incompetence and newly available scientific testing, suggest that there's got to be someone on death row who shouldn't be there; even if you don't believe that execution is barbaric (and I believe that it is barbaric), there's no denying that it's the one legal sanction that's irreversible. The case of Wanda Jean Allen, the subject of this documentary, exposes many of the weaknesses in our legal system, and the calls for blood, the desire by some to turn our prison system into a series of charnel houses, brings to mind Romans 12:19: "Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord."

The facts of the case aren't in dispute: in 1988, Wanda Jean Allen shot and killed her girlfriend, Gloria Leathers, after a domestic dispute. Seven years earlier, in another episode of rage, Allen committed a murder—she and Gloria in fact met in prison. So what could possibly mitigate the evidence against this twice-convicted killer? Well, testing indicated that, with an IQ of 69, Allen is borderline retarded; damage to the parietal lobe of her brain left her without appropriate and typical impulse control, and years before her murder of Leathers, a state psychiatrist stressed that failure to provide proper supervision for Allen could lead to horrific and tragic circumstances. Which is exactly what happened, suggesting that Allen should not have been left to her own devices, and that the failure here was a systemic one.

But, as this documentary makes clear, there's no place for that sort of legal nuance and broader understanding in our adversarial system. The prosecutors push hard to execute Wanda Jean Allen; the victim's family is split, some baying for her death, for either revenge or that elusive commodity, closure, while others have done their best to move past the rawness of their pain. The Wanda Jean we meet is neither a cold-blooded assassin nor clearly oblivious to the consequences of her actions—it becomes difficult to know what purpose is served by putting her to death. (The case also raises some serious Second Amendment issues: why was it so easy for this woman, with a history of violence and murder, problems with anger and impulse control, and with limited mental capacity, to get a gun?)

In some respects, our surrogate becomes Steve Presson, the attorney for Allen's appeal, who fights the good fight, even knowing that it's a Sisyphean effort. The deck seems culturally stacked against Allen, who's African American and a lesbian, in a state with a political culture steeped in white evangelical Christianity; and Presson seeks relief from the state Board of Pardon and Parole, all of whose members are appointed by the governor, and which is a body that, at this time had never once granted clemency. The level of stress in the hours leading up to the scheduled execution is unimaginable—Presson gets the shakes, and various members of Wanda Jean's family become almost entirely unhinged—and though we're spared the worst of it, the filmmakers don't glide over it, either, providing many shots of the open casket at Allen's funeral. (Given the title of this documentary and the workings of the justice system in Oklahoma, I don't think I'm giving away any secrets here.)

In her last days and hours, Wanda Jean Allen's life became the proverbial media circus, with reporters from Time Magazine, news crews from CNN, and an appearance by the Rev. Jesse Jackson—but it's a mark of Allen's diminished mental capacity that what's on her mind is getting a bag of chips. There's no justifying or excusing her murderous actions, but the unspoken and painfully true point of this documentary is that we're all that much poorer, spiritually and emotionally, by this sort of state-sponsored killing of someone so obviously impaired, and that our collective failure to provide for her needs at an appropriate time had brutal though entirely predictable consequences.

Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: A


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The transfer is reasonable enough; the movie seems to have been shot entirely on high-end video, so there's subsequently a good amount of contrast.

Image Transfer Grade: B-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishno

Audio Transfer Review: Audio is passable, though on some of the location shoots, the high level of static can make for some unpleasantness.

Audio Transfer Grade: B-


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 12 cues and remote access
Cast and Crew Biographies
8 Other Trailer(s) featuring The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill, Bob Dylan: Dont Look Back , Brother's Keeper, Go Tigers!, Porn Star: The Legend of Ron Jeremy, Lost in La Mancha, The Smashing Machine, The Weather Underground
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extra Extras:
  1. Docurama catalog
  2. DVD credits
Extras Review: Aside from Docurama trailers and info, the only extra is a brief biography of director Liz Garbus.

Extras Grade: D


Final Comments

The Execution of Wanda Jean refrains from preaching about capital punishment, but in its close study of one morally excruciating instance, it points up the flaws in a system designed for revenge and rehabilitation, and in fact offering neither. It's a passionate and well-made documentary, using one woman's sad story to illuminate a public debate in which the stakes are literally life and death.


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