The Execution of Wanda Jean


Middle 40-60% of all time (see others with this rank)

Festival Year

2002 (click here to see all competition films from this year)


Documentary Competition

Non-Cast Credits

Liz Garbus, Sheila Nevins, Rory Kennedy, Nancy Abrahan, Lisa Heller, Tony Hardmon, Mary Manhardt, Wendy Blackstone, Chandra Simon


Liz Garbus (The Farm: Angola, USA) returns to Sundance with another engaging film examining the criminal justice system. The Execution of Wanda Jean is an emotionally charged film chronicling one woman's fight to get off death row. Through Wanda Jean Allen's life-and-death battle, Garbus skillfully crafts an unforgettable exploration into one of America's most controversial ethical and political dilemmas: the death penalty. Since the reinstatement of capital punishment in 1976, its constitutionality and morality have been hotly contested. The Execution of Wanda Jean provides an intimate look at the roles poverty, mental health, race, geography, and sexuality play within the criminal justice system.

Wanda Jean was convicted of murdering her girlfriend in front of an Oklahoma police station 11 years ago. As Garbus follows Wanda Jean during her last months on death row, the story unfolds like a drama, climaxing with her clemency hearing. Her case is not simple; while she is clearly not innocent, the extent of her culpability is tested due to her borderline mental retardation and brain damage. Through prayer and a strong conviction for life, Wanda Jean keeps everyone's spirits high, as her legal team exhausts every option to save her life.

The film reveals the stress and emotional hardship suffered by both Wanda Jean's family and the victim's family. In a remarkable display of compassion, the victim's mother is able to forgive Wanda Jean. But forgiveness is not enough. The Execution of Wanda Jean is a poignant look at the death penalty and the inequities that permeate the system. Ultimately, the film poses the humanistic question: Execution for what purpose?


Meredith Lavitt (see other films reviewed by the same reviewer)

Film Takes Pace.