Eric D. Snider

The Execution of Wanda Jean (documentary)

Movie Review

The Execution of Wanda Jean (documentary)

by Eric D. Snider

Grade: A

Released: March 17, 2002


Directed by:


"Exciting" is not a word normally attributed to documentaries, but darned if "The Execution of Wanda Jean" isn't just that. Even if you already know the outcome, the manner in which everything unfolds is thrilling. We've seen fictional movies -- where they can make stuff up to suit their purposes -- that were not nearly this taut and well-told.

Wanda Jean Allen shot her girlfriend, Gloria Leathers, in front of an Oklahoma City police station in 1988. She was subsequently convicted of murder and sentenced to die by lethal injection. This film chronicles her attempts to get off death row in December 2000 -- a month before her scheduled execution.

There's no question she's guilty; what's at issue is whether she's mentally competent. Due to a childhood injury, she's borderline retarded, particularly when it comes to controlling herself in times of stress. Her lawyer, David Bisson, works doggedly to arrange a clemency hearing, at which her trial lawyer admits to having botched things: Incredibly, evidence of her mental problems was never shown to the jury. And as if that weren't enough to warrant postponing the execution, it then comes to light that the clemency board was given some misinformation by the prosecution.

Bisson is tireless in his efforts to save Wanda Jean's life. For her part, Wanda Jean is unfailingly high-spirited, regularly asking Bisson whether he had breakfast that day. Their relationship is sweet and unlikely, she an uneducated black lesbian and he a straight white attorney.

Director Liz Garbus clearly is on Wanda Jean's side, which makes her filmmaking all the more human and passionate. She shows us Wanda Jean's family, too, vividly portraying them as the colorful people they are. (Wanda Jean's brother is both a preacher and a licensed embalmer.)

Regardless of one's feelings about the death penalty, one can't help but feel that this execution needs to be delayed pending further investigation. In fact, it's so obvious, it's ridiculous. Prepare to be frustrated by our American legal system, and to be touched by the harrowing story of Wanda Jean.

Grade: A

Rated R, some harsh profanity

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This item has 15 comments

  1. remy says:


  2. Cameron says:

    Remy, your graceful eloquence is astounding.

  3. Vadiv says:


  4. Tapanga says:

    I think that if the family of the girl that was murdered can forgive, and the fact that they had evidence of Wanda's mental health issues, I think that the least they could have done was given her the stay of clemancy and allowed her to live the rest of her life in prison. I don't think that killing her was going to bring the murdered victim back nor does it make up for the loss of ones life by taking another. I also noticed the viciousness in the states attorney. They wanted her to die regardless and she didn't even get a fair trial, along with everyone being so hateful. Watching the documentary was like watching how the evil and hatred in people will cause them to afflict someone who is already suffering, very much like people do in the real world. *sigh* Heaven help us all.

  5. Dianna Patterson says:

    Oh Please... give me a break this woman killed 2 people not 1..she got off on the firsst one and went out and did it agin!! Try feeling sorry for the families of her victims. and she did not strike me as being mentally challanged. she knew what she was doing was wrong. These bleeding hearts make me sick!!

    This women died alot easier than her victims, she just went to sleep.

    and Cameron what a nasty and petty thing to say Vadiv you too. And Remy I AGREE WITH YOU GIRL!!! how's that for YELLING!! bunch of arrogant snobs

  6. Cynthia says:

    I have no sympathy at all for Wanda Jean Allen, whose cutesy, goofy behavior disguised her true deadly nature. This woman was dangerous as hell; she killed two people and had no real remorse whatsoever. And I don't buy the "she was retarded from a head injury" crap; she knew enough to follow her lawyer's instructions on how to behave in order to get clemency. She became a "born-again" Christian and denounced homosexuality (she was a lifelong lesbian) in order to save her skin. And I don't think a retarded person would be so calculating as to say before they were executed "forgive them for they know not what they do". Her lawyer was utterly charmed by her antics at the execution (she stuck out her tongue and wiggled on the table) but no doubt the victim's family were appalled by her total lack of remorse. If anybody deserved to be executed, it was Wanda Jean Allen. In her case, justice was served.

  7. Jennifer says:

    She never denounced her homosexuality. She was mentally retarded. If you watch, there's something a little off about her. It's not ''calculating'' to repeat a quote from the Bible. Yes, the victims' families were appalled at her antics, but who wouldn't be? Any "normal" person would have been scared. She wasn't. They kept her low stress, and so she seemed normal. If they'd stressed her out, she wouldn't have handled it well at all and it would've been a worse outcome. Don't get me wrong, I feel for the victims' families. There is no good way to be going about this. But, killing people who kill people to show that killing people is wrong? I don't get that.

  8. Bill says:

    A good murderer is a dead murderer.

  9. Lakeyta says:

    I watch the documentary and I'm going to have to agree with both sides. She does appear to be a bit off and while that doesn't excuse her actions, it should have been taken into consideration. My heart and condolences go out to both victims families and Wanda's because they all lost someone they loved dearly as shown.

    At the end of the day, when all is said and done, there were three murders commited. The person who injected Wanda, well, didn't they kill her? I've always felt like justice is never to be dished out by us but by God. Keeping her imprisoned would have done the same thing. Prevented her from killing again. Isn't that the outcome we were looking for?

  10. linda says:

    this comment is for cynthia why do you judge and why i your heart so cold yes wanda jean did a terrible thing but she did not deserve to die you are not the judge or ruler of life or death God does so what gives you the right to say such a hateful thing

  11. Latoya Leathers says:

    I feel that she got what my mom[Gloria Leathers]got and thats death. yea she got off easy for having murdered two people. My family and i live with the hurt everyday i have children who will never know the beautiful women i know as mom but, i can tell them all about her and i feel justice was served for my mom and the other mom who's daughter happens to e my childhood friend. I would like to thank everyone for the kind comments.

  12. Antoinette says:

    I still dont agree with the death penalty. I am a criminal justice major and I have done plenty of research on people who were wrongfull executed. In wanda's case, she was undoubtly guilty. However, if there is ONE person who watched the documentary and feels as if Wanda was NOT mentally unstable, they are crazy. She definitely had a mental issue. If my sources are correct, when she was a child, Wanda was hit by a car and stabbed in her left temple. The left side of the brain deals more with language and helps to analyze information given to the brain. If you injure the left side of the brain, you're aware that things aren't working (the right hemisphere is doing its job) but are unable to solve complex problems or do a complex activity. People with left hemisphere injuries tend to be more depressed, have more organizational problems, and have problems using language. Latoya, I am deeply symoathetic about you and your friend losing your mothers, but it was up tp the state to get Wanda the help that she needed. Being placed in a mental institution would have been more beneficial to her life. Forgiving is hard to do but sometimes we have to forgive in order to receive our blessings.

  13. The real one says:

    I watch the documentary and it touches me for all the families. Yes that does included Wanda's family! And I want to say that justice was not in our hands and if everyone got what they deserve we all will be punished. And Latoya wasn't type your mom a convict? So if the justice that servered you would of felt more than happy with the sentence she would have received. Look I feel for everyone, but god has no respective person, and we all will have our day, so becareful of the hatred we have cause god has sent his mercy on us and I

    t is his grace that keeps us kept.

  14. Reneah Lynn aka Mikia says:

    I am a 15 year old girl and I watched the documentary in my history class. I feel as if yes Wanda did know what she did was wrong she even admitted in the video. To everyone that commented, watched the video, or just read about this, to say that someone deserves to die because they killed someone is going to affect you not the person you say that about. GOD is the ONLY one to say who dies and when they die not us. In fact GOD hears our thoughts before we say them and whatever you are thinking at that moment thats whats in your heart. I do feel for all three families, Wanda's, Gloria's and the other women that was killed. But I personally believe that Wanda Jean Allen should have gotten 20 years and be put in a menatl institution and if she made progress let her out of jail within 10 to 20 years but not life living with the fact you killed someone is already like being in jail its a burden it haunts you you never can forget it and yet some even die from not going to get help for killing someone. Wanda Jean Allen did not deserve to die but she did deserve a fair trial and she did not get that. Im touched by this documentary because i was always told the little nasty things the courts and jury can do but i sint believe that now I DO!!!!!!!!!!!

  15. doris jean says:

    it is not easy to say who is right or wrong or how these families should feel. no one is a winner three women have exsperience the same hurt,lost and is easy to judge and pass judgement. God has the last say. i have nothing to say the things that are being said that are negative is neither here nor there, some of the comments hurt one family or another and that is what makes the difference.

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