Wanda Jean Allen and her spiritual advisor, the Rev. Robin Meyers of Mayflower Congregational UCC in Oklahoma City, shortly before her Jan. 11 execution. Chandra Simon photo.
Over the years, Meyers had been a spiritual advisor to Allen as she pleaded with the judicial system for her life, and she had asked him to stand with her at the end.
With an IQ measured at different times at 69 and 80, Allen had been convicted in June 1988 of killing her lesbian lover. In 1995, neurological tests confirmed that she had frontal lobe brain damage—the part of the brain that inhibits violent impulses. But at the original trial, her attorney failed to raise the issue of her mental disabilities.
Threw out the Bible
Meyers raised this issue at a petition for clemency on Dec. 15, 2000. The Rev. John Kruger, Kansas-Oklahoma Conference Minister, attended the clemency hearing in support of Meyers.
At the hearing, "we asked what kind of clemency you get in Oklahoma when you are poor, black, female, mentally impaired and lesbian," says Meyers. "For this, I was personally attacked."
The courts threw out Meyers' testimony on the grounds of separation of church and state.
"They read the Bible when they killed her," Meyers says, "but they threw it out during the trial."
'God, let me honor your call'
As Meyers stood with Allen, protesters outside the jail were arrested for peaceful civil disobedience.
Among the seven arrested were the Rev. Sala Nolan, Minister for Criminal Justice and Human Rights for the UCC's Justice and Witness Ministries, and the Rev. Diane Baker, a member of Mayflower Congregational.
"I prayed, 'God, let me honor your call,'" says Nolan, referring her decision to protest. For their act of civil disobedience, the protesters were fingerprinted, photographed, charged, strip searched and locked in a cell with lice-infected mattresses.
Across the United States, there is growing support for a moratorium on the death penalty from both liberal and conservative church members, partially because of DNA evidence, which increasingly overturns death penalty convictions.
U.S. government reports have confirmed the racism inherent in the death penalty. In addition, a 1998 study by the Death Penalty Information Center showed that African-American defendants were 3.9 times as likely to be sentenced to death as white defendants, and that persons who kill whites are 4.3 times more likely to receive the death penalty than those who kill African Americans.
According to the Lambda Legal Defense Fund, prosecutors also use sexual orientation of the accused to increase the likelihood of getting a death penalty conviction.
The struggle continues
Since the execution of Allen, the church members in Oklahoma City continue to fight for an end to the death penalty.
On Jan. 23, two more of Meyers' parishioners were arrested on civil disobedience charges while protesting on behalf of those still on Death Row in Oklahoma.
Another person, on seeing two more Mayflower members get arrested, said to Meyers, "If you've got this many people going to jail [over the death penalty issue], I think I'd better come to your church!"
At Mayflower, the struggle over the death penalty issue is particularly sensitive. So how does Meyers respond to UCC members who do not support the denomination's resolution against the death penalty, or whose loved ones were brutally killed and who now seek justice?
This is not a question Meyers takes lightly as pastor to a church member whose father was killed in the Oklahoma City bombing.
"Our first instinct is to want to kill for retribution," says Meyers. "As people of faith, we call people to ask, 'Is your religion going to leave you where you are or take you higher?' Your anger will destroy you if you don't make it to the next level."
Ron Buford is the UCC's public relations and marketing manager. Read the Rev. Robin Meyers' sermons on Wanda Jean's execution at the UCC website www.ucc.org/ucnews/feb01/killing.htm. To learn more about death penalty issues, visit www.deathpenaltyinfo.org.