Killing Wanda Jean
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?