Directed by Liz Garbus. USA. 2002.

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“It was wrong...”
- Erin Farrell-Rainbow/PUSH coalition

Being the veteran filmgoer that I am, I have developed a finely tuned method of gauging the quality of a film pre-viewing. I look at the stars of the film. I look at the plotline. I examine the poster. The most telling thing of all I find, is the reaction of the box office cashier at my local theatre. He LIVES at the theatre. He sees EVERYTHING. I have learned to recognise the different body signals he sends out; the wince of a “ick, you’ll hate this,” and the enthusiastic smile of a “it’s wonderful you’ll like it.” (This is one of the many reasons why I could not personally work at a movie theatre. I’m very choosy, and would be tossing myself in front of anyone purchasing a ticket to go off and see a movie that I personally wasn’t fond of. I can only imagine the destruction that would have taken place at the local premiere of XXX. But I digress...) At the Atlantic Film Festival showing of The Execution of Wanda Jean I got a response I’d never received from a box office operative:

ME: “One for The Execution of Wanda Jean please.”
VOLUNTEER: uncertain pause “Are you sure?”
ME: “Very sure. It comes very highly recommended.”
VOLUNTEER: “OK. Just don’t plan on sleeping for a few nights. It’s’s one of the most uncomfortable movies I’ve ever sat through.”

I arrived 90 minutes early to set up a table full of information about Death Penalty Focus, Human Rights Watch of California, and Californians for a Moratorium on Executions. 20 minutes after I had arranged my mountain of facts in a reasonably decorative fashion, my table had been emptied by my soon-to-be fellow audience members. I walked into the theatre to find them firmly ensconced in their chairs, popcorn forgotten. I watched as they held their various bits of information in front of them, almost as a defence against the emotions that the film would bring. They read facts about the barbarity of the death penalty. They became unnerved. There is always a certain tint to the waft of audience anticipation that hits me as I walk into a theatre, and here it was nothing but tautness. I looked around the cinema and recognised the majority of the faces as local media and film makers. At the other showings that I had attended during the festival week it seemed as though no topic could be touched on before a show, except the movie we were all there to see. We discussed the actors in it, the storyline, the directing, as well as always injecting an ever present pompous pride of any film made in my home area. Wanda Jean’s audience seemed desperate to talk about anything other then the powerful documentary we were there to imbibe. Sitting in my seat I heard conversations ranging from the latest sighting of stars to the most unfortunate experience with a popcorn seasoning, but nothing at all about the movie.

But everyone had an iron grip on the copies of the literature they had grabbed before entering the theatre.

“Those who think that the death penalty is wildly popular are wildly mistaken.”
- Lance Lindsey-Death Penalty Focus

The theatre went dark, and the film started. I don’t know about you, but this is generally the point in most of my film going experiences where I experience the greatest need to go and escort someone personally from a theatre. This is generally the point when popcorn munching, cell phone conversations, soda slurping irritants go to town. I had no cause to complain that night though, for Wanda Jean’s police video came up on screen and the audience stopped dead. It was as though they had been glued to their chairs.

From the moment Wanda Jean first appeared to the moment of her death, her genuine naiveté could not have been more obvious. Throughout the entire film I never got the sense that Wanda was able to grasp what had happened, and what was happening. There was almost no reaction to the prospect of her life being taken. 

On Wanda Jean
“She was so sweet....She had become at peace with herself, with her own sense of religion. She was like anyone in that a person might be perfectly normal, but with one simple push everything can change.”
- Rev. Jesse Jackson 

The Execution of Wanda Jean. All Rights Reserved.Halfway through the film I found myself wondering whether or not the title was attempting to mislead the audience in some way. The documentary outlines one of Wanda Jean’s clemency hearings. We all sat and watched as Wanda’s victim's brother stood up and pleaded for Wanda’s life, and listened to the reports of Wanda being evaluated as mentally challenged. “There,” I said to myself. “Surely even the most rigid of hearts can’t fail to be moved by a bereaved sibling standing up in support of clemency for Wanda, not to mention something of an official psychological nature stating that she was most likely not responsible for her actions.” The audience leaned forward, as a group in suspense to hear the outcome. The first member of the clemency board read out her vote to grant Wanda Jean clemency. “YES!” boomed a male voice from the front row. Everybody else on the board said no. The overwhelming response from us was “Huh?!?” Were it possible to change the past by the quantity of desire to do so exhibited by a single group of people, Wanda Jean would still be alive today. I sat stunned while the movie went on without me for several seconds. I just couldn’t believe that they had turned down her request for clemency. I don’t understand how a group of people in life-or-death positions of power can face a bereaved family saying “Please don’t kill the woman that took our daughter/sister away” and then decide to throw out that particular opinion.  I can’t fathom disrespecting a human being that way. I have always thought of any government (including my own Canadian version) as being hugely wasteful, absurdly exorbitant, and inanely domineering. And here, the Oklahoma officials involved seem to not only re-enforce my theory, but add an odd layer of seeming to want to carry out the death penalty in this case because they sincerely believe it will “help society.” It has been a month now since I viewed the film, and I still have no comprehension as to how having someone murdered instead of in jail for the rest of their life makes me safer at night. Granted, the biggest danger I face out of doors in rural Nova Scotia in the wee hours of the morning is either:

a) Having my entire body freeze to the density of a supermarket turkey
b) Being harangued by the local wildlife.

but you get my drift.

On Wanda Jean
“She was just precious....There was a real innocence about her. She was very religious, and so at peace. She has a...soft, child like nature. She never grasped the finality of her situation, that this was the final deal.”
- Tracy Rice-Death Penalty Focus Rainbow/PUSH coalition

I found myself burrowed in my impression of Wanda as sweet-minded, for even on her final day her first thoughts were of her private investigator’s (David Presson’s) well-being. An audience member burst into tears when he called Wanda on the day of her execution, and the first thing she said was “You sound tired. Have you eaten anything?” Wanda seemed to give no thought to herself, every bit of her energy seemed to go to those who were trying to help her. 

When both Wanda Jean’s family, and the family of the victim were interviewed, both sides could not have come across with more strength and grace. Wanda’s mother showed AMAZING resilience and courage. I am renowned for my ability to burst into tears at ANY moving onscreen moment, and watching Wanda’s mom pass through phases of blazing anger over her daughter’s impending death warrant, to the knowledge that there was nothing she could do, that her daughter was going to die, and there was absolutely nothing to be done....My heart snapped for her. I’m a parent, and I know that would have been the end of me. I don’t know how she got through it.

It seems the volunteer’s curse of sleeplessness would come to pass, for I left the theatre at 11 pm, drove the hour to get home, and didn’t get to sleep at all that night. I couldn’t get past moments of the film where the obvious solution of getting Wanda Jean psychological help could not have been more blatantly obvious, and still....nothing from the higher ups. I couldn’t fathom how any group of people in power could examine the case of a woman so CLEARLY unaware of the consequences of her actions (don’t even TRY to tell me that someone who commits a homicide in a police station parking lot is functioning on all cylinders) and take her life away. I spent the majority of my night checking on my daughter, thinking how very lucky I am, to live in a town where the worst crime committed in the last 5 years is turkey theft and wishing that there was something more that I could do to help further Death Penalty Focus’ campaign to get this arachic practice moved from present to past history. Around 5am I came up with my solution; a helpful suggestion......


There was a tremendous benefit to having this film shown at the Atlantic Film Festival. A theatre full of film makers saw it. Documentary films are a tremendously motivating medium, and the death penalty is an issue that frantically requires more attention. Movies like The Green Mile, The Chamber, or Dead Man Walking are wonderful to draw people in to the issue of the Death Penalty. The only problem with big budget pictures is that people who aren’t fans of the actors starring may avoid them, thus missing the messages that the movies contain. So I am hoping that the film makers in that theatre, and those of you out there who have already seen the movie will pick a Wanda Jean of your own. Make more documentaries. Tell more stories of people like Wanda, broadcast the message that nobody, no matter what they’ve done, deserves to die in anyway that you possibly can. Artists have the power to motivate, inspire and inform. Let’s tell more stories, and see whose minds we can change.

If you're interested in finding out more about the movement to abolish the death penalty visit:

Jen Johnston
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