United Church of Christ

Executing justice

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.

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