The Execution of Wanda Jean (documentary)

“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.

A (; R, some harsh profanity.)