Ndume Olatushani (Erskine Johnson) was released from a Tennessee prison on Friday, June 1. He served 26 years, 11 months and 5 days – most of them on death row.
Ndume was charged with a shooting death during a holdup in 1983. His palm print was found in the getaway car, and a witness testified that Ndume confessed. In fact, he was in St. Louis at his mother’s birthday party when the crime occurred, but he was convicted and sentenced to death.
After countless appeals, in 2004 the Tennessee Supreme Court ruled that prosecutors did not give the defense a police report showing that Ndume could not have fired the crucial shot. Ndume was re-sentenced to life in prison, and moved off death row.
Last December, Ndume’s conviction was overturned. The court found that witnesses had close ties to other suspects, which could have led them to implicate Ndume. He was awarded a new trial, and his status changed to someone charged with a crime but not yet convicted. He was moved to a Memphis jail to await the new trial, for yet another year.
At the same time, the parole board agreed to release him, but because his conviction was vacated, there was no crime from which to parole him. He was offered a deal for immediate release if he pled guilty to second-degree murder and accepted a sentence of time served. Ndume took the deal. He was finally free.
Ndume is free because he had advocates. A top New York law firm. Countless pro bono hours. Activists opposing the death penalty. National organizations that called attention to his case. People from the churches – including UCC members and leadership – who visited, fostered relationships, offered testimony, and held him in the light. A family that stood by him.
Nudume is home. He has much to do. He must learn to use a cell phone, ride unshackled in a car, walk down a city street. We hope he will continue to paint, as he taught himself to do in his long years in prison. We also have much to do. There are too many with wrongful convictions. Too many on death row. Too many incarcerated.
Ndume sends you his thanks, from the depths of his heart. Your work allowed him to believe that one day, he would be free. That day has come.
Who are UCC young adults?
In the UCC, young adults are considered those between the ages of 18 and 30. The reality is that a young adult could be female, male, a student, a professional, single, married, a parent, still living with a parent, Generation X or a Millennial, a seminarian, an ordained minister, someone who hasn't set foot in a church since high school and anything in between. "Young Adult" is a distinction of age that encompasses a group as diverse and dynamic as any in the UCC.
How can young adults get involved?
Young Adult Service Communities are unique opportunities for you to live in intentional community with others who share your commitment to service and social justice. Together, you will find the space to reflect on questions of meaning and to network for change.
Service and Justice Internships
The YASC network gives you the opportunity to grow professionally and change the world through intern placements with local nonprofit agencies, which are dedicated to justice advocacy and collaborative action.
Your placement will also allow you the opportunity to grow spiritually as you serve in a leadership position at a United Church of Christ congregation. Through this work you can see the convergence of church and world.
Finally, YASC provides you a space to grow personally by living in community with other young leaders, exploring together your direction, calling and future action in the world.
The Summer Communities of Service program is an ecumenical collaboration between the UCC Volunteer Ministries and Alliance of Baptists. Particpants live and serve from June to mid-August in host congregations from around the United States. There a four fundamental facets, which together form the foundation of the SCOS program:
The "intentional Christian community element" makes this program distinct and effective. Interns share a common food allowance, transportation funds and spiritual growth insights. Participants live in community with each other and with their hosts in their temporary city.
In the UCC and Alliance of Baptists diversity is a big piece of our identity. Both churches uphold socially progressive statements and advocate politically from a faith perspective. Diverse, community-service-integrated ministries show interns, congregations, the wider church and world where this faith-inspired work is happening in our midst. The SCOS projects help interns develop long-term commitment to engage in this kind of ministry.
Hands-On Justice Advocacy/Service Opportunities
Grow professionally. Change the World.
Grow Personally. Grow Spiritually.
The Global Mission Intern program invites you to challenge yourself in a one to three year international mission service opportunity. As you offer yourself in service, you will also learn more about yourself, your relationship with God, and your place in God’s world. You will build relationships that will change the way you look at the world. You will be a part of a growing group of young adults who have been transformed by these experiences and will provide you a new community on return. You will come back from your year in mission equipped to provide a global perspective on issues facing the church in our hurting world today.
The UCC national setting recommends sites within the United States that host mission opportunities for groups. These host sites are rooted in local communities and utilize volunteer groups in their on-going service within those places. Volunteers experience God’s presence among new people and in new places through these experiences. UCC Mission Trip Opportunities are short-term, lasting up to a week.
Working together as a significant partner in the ministry and future of the church, OMA seeks to advise, connect and advocate on behalf of the network of persons responsible for Outdoor Ministries in the United Church of Christ. The Outdoor Ministry Association works to support and encourage the staff, volunteers, board members and conferences at these special places; to promote outdoor ministries in all areas of the church; and to celebrate the many wonders of God's nature!
The Council for Youth and Young Adult Ministries (CYYAM) advocates, communicates, coordinates, and networks on behalf of youth and young adults of the UCC. CYYAM members work together and with other church leaders to establish strong youth and young adult ministries throughout the UCC by advocating to church leaders, helping make youth and young adult voices heard at General Synod, seeking to address issues of social justice and peace, and serving as a voice for UCC youth and young adults.
The vision of Justice & Witness Ministries is of a more just, peaceful and compassionate world that honors all of God’s creation. Leaders are needed throughout our churches and communities to help share, pursue and achieve this vision. Justice Leaders Engaging and Developing (Justice LED) is a program that offers training, leadership skills and support to local churches and UCC members who seek tangible ways to move our world towards this vision.
Together with Sexuality and Our Faith, Our Whole Lives helps participants make informed and responsible decisions about their relationships, health and behavior in the context of their faith. It equips participants with accurate, age-appropriate information in six subject areas: human development, relationships, personal skills, sexual behavior, sexual health, and society and culture. It provides not only facts about anatomy and human development, but helps participants to clarify their values, build interpersonal skills and understand the social, emotional and spiritual aspects of sexuality.
Dr. Robin Meyers argued a petition for clemency for Wanda Jean Allen on Friday, Dec.15, 2000, at 1 p.m. at the Lexington Penitentiary in Lexington, Okla. The following is the sermon Meyers delivered to his congregation on Dec.10, 2000.
When I say from this pulpit, as I often have, that the only thing anyone knows for certain, is that not a single one of us knows anything for certain, I am speaking from experience—and that's what makes for real preaching. If the maxim in writing is to "write what you know," then it should be true of preaching as well—it ought to be about the world as it really is, not just about the world as we hope it might be someday.
Months ago, the phone rang, and the voice on the other end of the line extended an invitation to me that has changed my life in ways I would never have expected, and put me at the center of something bigger than all of us put together. The voice belonged to Steve Presson, whose Norman, Okla., law firm, Jackson and Presson, handles many of Oklahoma's death row cases. He is, I was soon to learn, a regular listener to the weekly Mayflower Congregational UCC radio program—and as a result of listening to those sermons on the radio, had decided to approach the clemency process for a pending execution in a completely new way.
We decided to meet at my favorite, funky little coffee house, The Red Cup, and when we pulled up our chairs, stirred in our steaming cups of Java, and started talking, I quickly realized I was about to take the first step down the road less traveled—and as Robert Frost said in that magnificent poem, it really does make all the difference—because once the first step is taken, there is no turning back.
What Mr. Presson explained to me was, that in his years of defending death-row inmates, nothing had ever convinced a pardon and parole board to grant clemency, even though in Oklahoma we have the option to commute sentences to life in prison without the possibility of parole. He said there have been the usual approaches to clemency hearings—weeping relatives, emotional expressions of remorse, pleas for forgiveness and whatever other evidence could be presented which sought to show that the offender was short-changed in the legal process, which so often happens in our criminal justice system these days because it is certifiably broken. But nothing works.
Of the five members of Oklahoma's pardon and parole board, three were appointed by Governor Frank Keating who, together with [then] Texas Governor George W. Bush, is the most pro-death penalty governor in America. A Roman Catholic, Keating's pro-death penalty statements are in direct conflict which his church's official teaching. But this has not deterred him from making public statements, including his belief that the death penalty actually upholds the sacredness of human life, and the Pope himself, while an admirable man, is simply mistaken when it comes to the death penalty.
And so Oklahoma, which seems to me to be in a kind of undeclared race with Texas to see who can kill the most people as a way of proving how wrong it is to kill people, has proven to be an almost hopeless place for death row inmates. And Mr. Presson said that he and his legal team had decided to try something that had never been tried before: to ask a minister to make an appeal for clemency based not just on legal issues, but on moral and ethical ones as well.
"I have come to believe," Mr. Presson explained, "that lawyers do not have the moral authority to make the kind of arguments that often need to be made in death penalty cases. That takes someone who knows the Bible and is able to offer a second opinion when it comes to the prevailing religious assumptions of this state, which is that God is in favor of what we are doing—after all, 'an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth'—take a life, forfeit your life."
But then, of course, we know that it really doesn't work that way. You can kill people these days, sometimes a whole bunch of people, and if you have the right defense, the right skin color, the right connections, you will not get the death penalty. There are no rich people on death row. And if you are O.J. Simpson, of course, you can get away with murder, because you can afford the Dream Team.
Not so with Wanda Jean Allen, who shot and killed her lesbian lover, Gloria Leathers, in front of the Village Police Department 12 years ago, after an extended argument escalated into a tragedy. Exactly what happened that day we'll never know for sure, but this much is certain—the crucial element of pre-meditation, which Oklahoma law requires for the death penalty, was alleged, but could never be proved. It was a crime of passion and, paradoxically, we know that it is easier to kill someone we love, especially when we are about to lose them, than it is to kill a stranger.
Nevertheless, Wanda Jean had indeed done the killing and confessed to the crime. And because she had met Gloria Leathers in prison, where she was serving time on a previous manslaughter conviction, she was viewed as a woman who could not control her violent impulses and could not function in society. Prison, it seemed, was where Wanda Jean Allen would have to spend the rest of her life.
She secured an attorney, and he agreed to take the fee for what he assumed would be a second manslaughter charge, $5,000. But the family had almost nothing to pay him and scraped together $800—agreeing to take a second mortgage on the house to pay the rest.
At the pre-trial hearing, the attorney was shocked to learn that the prosecution would seek the death penalty, and because he had never tried a capital case and felt unqualified to do so, begged the judge to be released from the case. The judge refused. He asked the judge to provide a public defender for Wanda Jean, and he would agree to act as counsel for no additional fee. The judge refused. No investigator was provided. Critical evidence about her mental condition (she has an IQ of 69, which borders on mental retardation) was never introduced at the trial—and so, for $800, and with the help of an attorney who didn't want the case and wasn't qualified to try it, Wanda Jean Allen was given the death sentence.
The prosecution characterized Wanda Jean Allen as a monster who hunted down and killed her victims, and because of her sexual orientation, referred to her repeatedly as the "man" in the relationship. Come to think of it, given what I know about homophobia in this state, many people may not even consider that we are about to execute the first woman ever in Oklahoma—because they really think of her as a man.
As for being a monster, I can tell you, after having spent hours with Wanda Jean, there is absolutely nothing monstrous about her. To the contrary, she has become a deeply religious woman—and not at the last moment, either—not as a last-minute, born-again strategy in hopes of gaining some religious advantage, but as a person who is demonstrably religious.
The first time I ever visited Wanda Jean, we all walked into a room together, and she said, "Let's begin with prayer." Well, I'm used to that, so I was all set to begin, and suddenly, it was Wanda Jean who started praying! Now, I get handwritten notes in the mail from Wanda Jean about once a week, telling me what scriptures to read so I will not be discouraged. "Don't you worry," she said to me recently. "This is all in God's hands now, and we are all being used for a greater purpose. We can't only trust in ourselves, but we have to give it all over to Him." Sometimes I'm not sure who the minister is, and who is being ministered unto.
What's more, she has been a model prisoner at Mabel Bassett, and is one of the most popular inmates ever incarcerated there. She often leads other inmates in worship, quotes more scripture than most church folk even know, and found out recently just how much she means to the rest of the prison population there.
When her final appeal was denied, over 200 inmates circled her lock-down unit, her "condo" as she calls it, and sang and prayed for her. All of them signed a letter asking that she not be executed, because she has become someone who means something to them, who is doing what good she can—despite the fact she is in lock-down 23 hours a day.
Her execution date is scheduled for Thursday, January 11, by lethal injection at McAlester. If she is not granted clemency [this coming Friday], I will accompany her to the death house, spend her last hours with her, and then witness her execution. And although I have seen many people die in my ministry, I have never seen anyone killed—in this case a strong, handsome, 41-year-old woman who will be given a final meal, strapped down to a large metal gurney, and injected with poison.
The state of Oklahoma is killing her for you, and for me—the citizens and taxpayers of Oklahoma. They do it assuming that most of us want this, and sadly, the majority of Oklahomans still do. But what politicians don't realize is that Americans are in the midst of rethinking the death penalty, and even changing their minds about it—but the people in power don't have the message yet.
What's more, this national queasiness cuts across traditional, political and even religious traditions. Republican governor George H. Ryan of Ill., called for a moratorium on the death penalty, citing a corrupt, even inept, criminal justice system. And more remarkable yet, Pat Robertson has publicly shared his misgivings about the death penalty—claiming that Christians ought to be more about mercy than about vengeance.
I don't know if people even understand how remarkable that is, and I can only attribute the silence and lack of publicity about his remarks to the fact that this prominent leader of the Religious Right was not saying what his people wanted to hear—which by the way, means that for the first time in his life, he may have been preaching the gospel!
Because the truth is, we don't want to hear it. We would much prefer to stay with the God of vengeance and wrath when it comes to the death penalty—the God whom, it was assumed, had authorized the death penalty for 38 offenses in the Old Testament, from adultery (which nobody seems anxious to bring back as a capital offense), to a woman who married but wasn't a virgin (she could be stoned to death), to a young boy who talked back to his father (he could be executed also—talk about tough love).
What I will be trying to do at the state penitentiary in Lexington is ask that the pardon and parole board members, all of whom are Christians, consider the New Testament for a change. Especially the passage in the Sermon on the Mount, the most important sermon ever preached in the history of the world, the Constitution of the Christian faith, where Jesus directly cites the "eye for an eye" passage for reinterpretation.
"You have heard it said an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth (past tense...that is the old way), but I say to you (present tense...this is the new way, the New Covenant), if a man strikes you on one cheek, turn also to him the other...pray for your enemies...never return evil for evil." When you come right down to it, clemency is about forgiveness, and forgiveness is the hardest lesson of the faith. It's easy to talk about, but almost impossible to practice. And how many times are we commanded to forgive? Seven times? No, 70 times seven, which as Wanda Jean herself has pointed out to me on a number of occasions, is 490 times.
When Cain kills his brother Abel, in the Bible's very first homicide, God is said to have put a mark on Cain and sent him wandering. To this day, death-row inmates are said to have the "mark of Cain," as if this was a mark of disgrace, of shame, as if they have been marked by God for death. But the mark of Cain was a mark of protection, put there by God so Cain "would not also be killed." One dead brother was enough.
But perhaps most telling of all is the story of the woman caught in adultery, who was about to be stoned to death. She had been caught, there was no presumption of innocence, and she was about to be killed as the law allowed. We tend to remember it as a story about hypocrisy, "Let the one among you who is without sin cast the first stone," but we forget it also is about Jesus stopping an execution. He sent home those who were suddenly ashamed to presume to take a human life, especially one with whom they could never truly identify, and then he said to the offender, "Go and sin no more."
One of the most remarkable facts of this case is that the mother of Gloria Leather, the victim's mother, Ruby Wilson, has forgiven Wanda Jean, and has told me she is not in favor of the death penalty. Given this remarkable fact, I plan to ask the pardon and parole board , "If you are not killing Wanda Jean for the mother of her victim, then who are you killing her for?" What's more, if the mother of the victim can forgive someone else's child for taking the life of her own child, then why can't the rest of us?
Why do we, under these circumstances, go ahead and play God? What gives us the right? And if life is really precious (and I sincerely believe that religious people everywhere can agree on this fact—that it is indeed precious), then how has the life of someone who made a terrible mistake suddenly lost that designation?
If you ask someone, especially someone who calls themselves pro-life, "How do you know the life of the unborn is precious?" they will always say, "God has deemed it so—God gives all life, and calls it good, and asks that we protect more and more of it."
Then I am very confused. Because if we don't do the designating, how can we do the revoking? If we don't bestow preciousness then how can we presume to take it back in the barbaric act of execution? I know, I know—the unborn life is innocence (but then of course, it can't make any mistakes before it's born)—and so either all life is precious because God decides it is, or we pick and choose—when, and under which circumstances life is precious—and that sounds like idolatry to me.
I don't know why this is happening, or why I have been given such a remarkable opportunity to practice what I preach, but I have asked for your prayers, and I need them.
I have asked you to write to the attorney general, the governor, and I hope you will. I have invited everyone within reach of my voice, and that includes everyone who listens to me on the radio, to come to Lexington on Friday, Dec. 15, at 1 p.m. for the hearing, and to know that the building only holds 150 people—but don't let that stop you.
The truth is, we keep killing more and more people, and it's becoming easier and easier. Once we wouldn't think of killing someone who committed their crime as a juvenile, but we're past that now. Once we wouldn't think of killing someone who was mentally retarded, but we're past that now. And here we are, ready to kill our first woman, and yet we say, "Women and children into the lifeboats first." Why? So we can get past this, too?
What has become of us? What are we going to have to do to stop this madness? If it's a long, long journey, then of course it must begin with a single step. That first step is now before us. The most important question anyone of us who claims the Christian faith can ask about the death penalty is this: What Would Jesus Do?
If that's going to be anything more than a slogan on a T-shirt (WWJD), then we are going to quit asking the question rhetorically, and ask it like we mean it—because we do—don't we?
If Jesus just happens to show up at Lexington next Friday—and whatever you do, don't rule out that possibility—then what do you think He would do? Tell us to go ahead and kill Wanda Jean? Or would He walk over, put one arm around Ruby Wilson, Gloria's mother, and weep with her over the loss of her child...and then put the other arm around Wanda Jean Allen and say, "Go and sin no more"?
You know the answer...and so do the pardon and parole board members, if it will but listen to its heart for once—for the heart is a better teacher than the head.
Next Friday, I invite every able-bodied person who is so moved to come to the state penitentiary in Lexington, Okla., where they will begin to "process in" as they call it, a crowd that is going to be much larger than they can possibly imagine. People are coming here from all over the country. Sister Helen Prejean is coming.
If you do not get in and have to stand outside the prison gate, there will be many people there to keep you company. It might just take you back to a by-gone day, before we made state-sponsored killing legal again—a day when we had a saying that went like this: What if they gave a war and nobody came?
Only this time, we will march under the banner of the Lord—the one who stops executions in progress. And our motto will be: What if they gave another execution, assuming nobody would notice...and everybody came?
Wanda Jean Allen was executed Jan. 11 at the Mabel Bassett Corection Center in Oklahoma City. Dr. Robin Meyers delivered this sermon to his congregation on Jan. 14, 2001.
Last Thursday night, at the state penitentiary in McAlester, Okla., I watched with my own eyes as the state of Oklahoma committed premeditated, first-degree murder. They killed my friend, Wanda Jean Allen, with whom I had spent hours and hours, talking, praying, laughing and crying—and they did it because we could not stop them from doing it. They did it for the sake of justice and to make things right with the universe again.
I'm here to tell you that it doesn't feel to me like anything has been made right with the universe. In fact, to the contrary, the whole experience has opened my eyes and made me feel more than just an intellectual aversion to the death penalty. I am now opposed to it viscerally and believe, whatever else may be said about this sad chapter in both Oklahoma and American history, God has neither abandoned us nor given us reason to believe that we should abandon each other.
Little did I know almost a year ago, when I agreed to plea for mercy for Wanda Jean, that the decision made by her attorneys to shift from a purely legal approach to a moral and spiritual one would have such powerful, and yet undiminished consequences. It's as if we opened the lid and let more people than ever before peer inside both the criminal justice system and the process by which we decide which tiny fraction of the people who commit murder in this country deserve to be murdered themselves.
It can hardly be a surprise to any of you that the first woman killed by Oklahoma would be a black lesbian. Nor should it come as any surprise that religious appeals were dismissed as irrelevant when pleading for that woman's life—because when we say WWJD (What Would Jesus Do?), it's a purely rhetorical question in Oklahoma. It should be changed to WCJDFM (What Can Jesus Do For Me?).
We have a saying in our culture when we don't really want to know too much about something. We say, "That's more than I want to know." Well, I now know more than I ever wanted to know about how death row works, about how the attorney general's office works, about how the Department of Corrections works and about how their power is protected and preserved no matter how many lies need to be told or how many reputations are destroyed in the process. I have gotten a lesson these last few months in ruthlessness.
I also have discovered more than I ever wanted to know about criminal defense work. You have to be something of a masochist to want to do it, especially the part that so few attorneys are willing to do: defend death row inmates. Think about it and you will understand how difficult it can be for our own Vicki Werneke. They not only lose cases, they lose their clients, almost all of them.
They are the ones who get to know death row inmates as real human beings. Seldom are they the monsters the media would have us believe, because if they were seen, known and understood better, we could not kill them. To kill them we must be afraid of them and do it from a distance.
The same thing is true in warfare. Soldiers must be trained to kill an abstraction. They are not killing other human beings with names and family. Soldiers are gunning down a "goon," a "kraut" or a "Jerry," if the other person is German, and a "gook," a "slant-eye" or a "jap," if the other is Asian. And the other side does the same thing—killing not American boys with names and families, but Yankee pigs and the like.
Every once in a while they would discover, after they had done the killing they were required to do, that upon removing personal affects from the enemy dead, a wallet would contain a picture of, not a kraut or a Jerry, but of Hans Kurler and his young wife Hilde. And standing beside them, in a photo soaked in blood, were their two small children, Peter and Germaine. And it dawns upon soldiers at that moment—they had not just killed an object, the "enemy," but a human being just like them, with hopes and dreams and families—conscripted into military service just like they had been—eager to do what they believed was right, and certain God was on their side.
Had I never gotten to know Wanda Jean Allen (I mean, really gotten to know her), I would still have been outraged at her execution. But getting to know her like I did means not only am I outraged, I feel diminished. Because in a way I never expected, part of my own life is gone, part of my innocence and part of my heart.
The first time I ever met her, I thought she was a attractive woman and, indeed, everyone who interviewed her remarked how "pretty" they thought she was. Wanda Jean had only one outfit, the steel grey shirt with the word INMATE stenciled on the back of it, and a small white tag in the front that had her name and her inmate number. Grey dungarees and black tennis shoes completed the outfit, but she had done something special for the holidays. She had tied two small bells on top of each shoe so when she walked, the bells tinkled.
These appeared around Christmas and I asked her about it. She looked at me a bit incredulously and said, "Robin...uh...haven't you heard people say, ‘I'll be there with bells on?'...well, these are my bells. At my clemency hearing I want to put everyone in the holiday spirit...so I'm gonna come jingling in."
That's pure Wanda Jean. She never finished high school and never went to college, but she was street smart and funny. I can't tell you how many times she made me laugh. Or how many pep talks I got from her. She was constantly cheering all of us up, constantly telling us to have more faith, and to put more trust in God, and then she'd quote scripture or ask us to pray. She'd pray for us...long, evangelical prayers which always revolved around the same theme: All things are possible with you, Lord, because you've told us to trust you, and you will never forsake us.
Wanda Jean always remembered to ask about everyone's kids and she remembered their names. She wrote many notes to me and when I told her about Cass, she wrote a note to him saying she understood how important it is, when you are a kid, to get your own car.
There was a prison guard at Mabel Basset who was pregnant. Whenever she appeared, Wanda Jean would exclaim, "How's that baby?...you take care of that baby!"
And Wanda Jean knew something about taking care of babies. In a family that was mired in poverty, abuse and mental illness, it was also dysfunctional in the most common, yet most tragic, of ways—an absentee father. She was the second oldest child —the oldest is her brother, Bill. She had to help her mother take care of everybody. She was the big sister and so she hustled, in the truest sense of the word, to put food on the table and to keep track of her seven siblings—and there was never any money.
At 15 her IQ was measured at 69. A doctor first surmised she had frontal lobe brain damage either from birth, from being knocked unconscious as a child by a car, or from having been stabbed in the temple where she had a very visible scar. She must have known that finishing high school would be an impossibility. Look at her transcript, something the attorney general's office could have easily done instead of passing on a lie. It was almost all Fs—she flunked arts and crafts. She had only one good grade, among all these Fs, and it was in English II. And when the Rev. Burris, the man who baptized her in prison, asked her about it, she said it was because of the teacher. She really liked that teacher. And that teacher, she said, had taken a special interest in her work and pushed her to do better and believed in her. "I worked hard for that teacher," she said. "And that teacher worked hard for me." But there were not enough such teachers, and one day Wanda Jean got up and decided not to go to school again, and her transcript ends after the ninth grade. When I asked her if she graduated from high school, she was still confused about what that meant. "I graduated from the ninth grade," she said. She had no GED and not much self-concept either—except that somewhere in there, as if her life weren't hard enough, she was beginning to understand that her sexual orientation was different, and believe me, that's nothing she could talk about either.
Homosexuality is taboo in the black community, even more so than in the white community, and a source of both family and community shame. You just didn't talk about it. You kept it hidden away. And so in this family, where she was all but invisible to most of the world to begin with, she was almost invisible to herself. A high school dropout, a lesbian and a woman on her way to self-destructing. She had difficulty holding down a job and no one to talk to about who she was. Remember, to be a human being requires two things: to do and to be. Wanda Jean Allen could neither do, nor could she be. And since you and I are not there, and have never been there, we don't know what we would have done to become somebody. Wanda Jean Allen decided that an important accessory, however, was a gun. And she lived in a world full of guns: pimps, prostitutes, drug dealers—they all had guns. They were somebody. Maybe she could be somebody.
Guns were a lot easier to get than a high school diploma. So easy to get then and still so easy to get now. I have often thought during this whole tragedy, if a gun had been just a little harder to come by, three women might still be alive today (the two women she killed and Wanda Jean herself, whom we killed on Thursday, albeit it with the latest and most humane technology).
The murder of Dedra Pettis happened in the midst of an altercation involving a pimp and a prostitute, and more than one person was shooting. It was a shootout. It is so mired in confusion, and the only witnesses to it were considered so untrustworthy that the court gave a very light sentence—four years for manslaughter. In prison Wanda Jean met Gloria Leathers, who had a violent past of her own, and they fell in love.
After getting out of prison, they moved in together. But it was one fight after another and the police were always at their home. On the fateful day, when Gloria moved out and Wanda Jean went after her, the police were called once more to keep the peace. But in the midst of the argument the police got a priority call and left the scene. When Wanda Jean caught up with them in front of the Village Police Department, the argument started again.
Exactly what happened, we will never know. But we do know this: Wanda Jean Allen had a gun. And again she used it to express herself, to have the last word. After shooting a woman she said she loved, she went back home and wandered around as if in a daze until the police came to arrest her. She did not resist and immediately confessed to her crime. But she did not think she had killed Gloria. That happened a few days later, when she died in the hospital.
When Wanda Jean was told the news on the police file tape, she cried as they booked her on first degree murder charges. The rest of the story you know—an attorney was hired to defend her who had never tried a capital case and got $800 to do it. With no knowledge of her mental deficiencies, her attorney tried to portray her as "normal," as an All-American girl. He put her on the stand and asked her, among other things, if she graduated from high school. She lied. "And did you go to college?" Again she lied. Those lies were passed on to the pardon and parole board, tragically, by the attorney general's office as the gospel truth—as a way of persuading the board that she couldn't be mentally retarded.
Although they have now admitted it was a "mistake," they have successfully defended themselves before a federal judge, claiming they simply took Wanda Jean at her word, even though they spent most of their presentation persuading us that nothing Wanda Jean Allen said could be believed. The pardon and parole board members denied clemency to Wanda Jean Allen, believing she was a college graduate.
I also learned, quite to my amazement, that religion should play no part in a clemency hearing, according to the Jesus-loving state of Oklahoma. Even though clemency is not about retrying cases or even necessarily about trying to establish innocence (which is the only cause for clemency, according to Governor Frank Keating), it is, according to Webster's dictionary, a plea for mercy.
Since mercy is a religious concept, and Jesus showed mercy to everyone he met—including a woman about to be executed for what was then a capital offense, it was rather shocking to hear the state claim my contention, that the death penalty is unchristian, was "offensive." It is not offensive, however, to constantly refer to Wanda Jean as the dominant one, the "man" in the relationship, to explain her aggressive and violent behavior.
I have learned a lot. More than I wanted to know. More than I can ever "unlearn." And while the whole world watched, despite a last-minute meeting with the governor, the attorney general and members of the pardon and parole board—who on Thursday afternoon, just hours before we killed Wanda Jean, secured a copy of the clemency video and watched it in the governor's office—not even a stay of execution could be granted so a new hearing could be held and the pardon and parole board could vote again—this time whether to kill not a college graduate, but a mentally and neurologically impaired high school dropout.
When they got us all seated in the tiny room behind a glass wall, where the seven of us who tried to save Wanda Jean Allen's life could witness the execution, we were joined by selected members of the print media (no one has ever been allowed to film an execution). The warden spoke theses oddly formal words aloud: "Let the execution begin." The whole ritual is so scripted, formal and surrealistically evil.
The blinds which kept us from seeing were rolled up. And there, not 10 feet from me, was Wanda Jean—looking even smaller than I remembered her, stretched out on a gurney with her arms extended and tubes running from the needles they had inserted into her veins (Jean told us once she was afraid of needles). The tubing looped around behind her and disappeared behind a small opening in the wall where someone, out of sight, controlled the flow of poison. The tubes were clear—we could see death coming.
Jean was smiling. And all of us who know her knew exactly why. It was a last act of defiance—she could control at least how she looked when she died. They asked her if she had any last words and she raised her head and spoke clearly into the microphone: "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do."
"Is that all?" they asked. " That's all," she said. Then she added in her customary politeness, "Thank you." I saw the Sodium Pentothal coming through the tubes. Just before it entered her body, she raised her head and turned to look at us—her lawyers and her ministers. And she smiled and stuck out her tongue. It was a comical gesture we understood perfectly. It baffled everyone else. The smile faded quickly, not because Wanda Jean wanted to stop smiling, but because her eyes glazed over and then rolled back in her head. Two minutes later, when her heart monitor stopped its rhythmic beeping and gave the familiar continuous flat-line sound, the coroner walked over and put his stethoscope on her chest. Then he turned to us and said, without a hint of emotion in his voice, "Time of death is 9:21 p.m."
The blinds rolled back down and we were escorted from the room then taken from the prison grounds in a van beyond the reach of the media. The victim's family, on the other hand, was taken straight to the press room, where they could give their reactions to the execution. Outside the gates of the prison, Shawn was waiting for me. This patient, wonderful woman who has kept the home fires burning through all of this, and if she did not have a 7-year-old, would have spent last Wednesday night in jail. She hugged me and introduced me to several people who had been keeping a vigil.
On the long drive back, we hardly said a word to each other. The trees had all been broken down by the Christmas ice storm and the hanging branches made everything look and feel defeated. Back at the prison, they were ordering more poison because they will do this seven more times in just the next three-and-a-half weeks.
I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live...
Stop killing for me, Oklahoma. It's killing me.
Prayer for Sunday, Jan.14, 2001
Lord of Life, you have put before us the ways of life and death and told us to choose life. In so many ways, we ignore your advice; but still seek your blessing. We still choose death. In the violence we do against our children, both physically and psychologically. In the words we say to and about one another. In the games we play and in the making and keeping of an enemies list. In the hunting and killing of animals, for no purpose. In the counsel to strike back when someone strikes us. In the seeds of hatred we plant, when we are afraid. In the glorification of war. In the misuse of religion. In the failure to forgive. In the belief that we are always right, and if we are wrong, it is weakness to admit to it. In the fatal tendency we have to play God, and then ask your blessing upon our idolatry. In the making and selling and worshiping of guns. In the TV programs that play upon our fascination with death. In the jokes we tell. In the food we eat. In the casual conversation we make about who should live and who should die. We are violent people, breeding violent people, and then dealing with them violently. We may not be the children of Israel, wandering the desert, Lord. But we are wandering. We are lost. Come to us, abide with us, and make some trouble in the land. We will join you...non-violently. In the name of the prince of peace we dare to pray, assuming he will not resent it terribly. Amen.