|Jackson & Presson
|THE CASE OF
WANDA JEAN ALLEN
FIRST WOMAN EXECUTED
IN OKLAHOMA HISTORY
|Robert W. Jackson
Steven M. Presson
|Wanda Jean Allen, facing execution by lethal injection, futilely asked the
Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board to recommend clemency for her, sending
her plea for mercy to Governor Frank Keating. That would have allowed the
Governor to investigate the case and decide whether her sentence of death
should be commuted to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.
Gaining only one vote for clemency, the Board voted against Wanda Jean.
“How in the world did this case become a death penalty case? In my
experience as a judge and prosecutor, this would not have been
anything more than second degree murder, and probably manslaughter
at the most.”
– The Honorable Wade Brorby, Judge of the
Tenth Circuit United States Court of Appeals,
asking his first question to the prosecution
during Wanda Jean Allen’s federal appeal.
How did Wanda Jean Allen’s case become a death penalty case? The prosecution said it was a malice-
aforethought, premeditated murder. Yet Gloria Leathers, the victim, was shot in front of the Village Police
Department, hardly a place one would think would be the venue for a premeditated murder. The answer is
found in a series of tragic mistakes, none of them the fault of Wanda Jean Allen.
Twenty years before Wanda Jean’s trial, when she was a juvenile, Wanda Jean was because of her
poverty and sociological circumstances placed in foster care and State juvenile care. While in State care,
when she was 16 years old, she underwent testing and evaluation by Dr. Martin Krimsky, a clinical
psychologist. His report is remarkable:
"Wanda achieved a Verbal IQ of 62, (mental deficiency), a
Performance IQ of 78 (border-line) and a Full Scale IQ of 69
which is just within the upper limit of the classification of mental
retardation. The combined mental age equivalent is nine years
seven months. . . . [Wanda Jean] does very poorly on Similarities
which requires abstract and conceptual thinking. The Verbal
subtests are severely lowered and all fall within the range of
retardation. Certain methods she utilizes in solving perceptual
and cognitive tasks resemble those methods which are frequently
used by individuals with cerebral damage. . . . In view of these
findings, a neurological assessment would be most appropriate. . .
In view of the intellectual deficit and the marked inability to cope
with a variety of complex situations I would recommend some form
of protective control with emphasis on socialized and vocational
Report of Martin Krimsky, Ph.D., May 22, 1975.
What was the Pardon and Parole Board told about this report? This:
1. Wanda Jean never received the protective control and training recommended by Dr. Krimsky.
2. During Wanda Jean’s first incarceration for manslaughter, shenever received treatment, training, or
care as recommended by Dr. Krimsky’s report.
3. Wanda Jean’s defense attorney for the trial at which she received the death sentence did not know
about this report.
The State of Oklahoma knew in 1975 that Wanda Jean Allen probably had brain damage, had neurological
deficiencies, and was mentally retarded. Dr. Krimsky warned that Wanda Jean needed protective control.
The warning was ignored.
In 1981 Wanda Jean pled guilty to manslaughter for the death of Detra Pettus. It was another domestic-
related incident in which the facts have been disputed since Wanda Jean’s last trial. In 1981, Oklahoma
prosecutors stood before an Oklahoma County District Court Judge and swore that Wanda Jean’s plea of
guilty to the crime of manslaughter was appropriate and warranted under the facts, and that a sentence of
four years imprisonment was all that was just and proper under the facts. Now the State urged that Wanda
Jean should die because she also killed Detra Pettus. Wanda Jean was punished for that tragedy, and it
was and should have been of no consequence to her death sentence – except for one thing.
While Wanda Jean Allen was in prison term for taking Detra Pettus’s life, she never the received
treatment or care recommended by Dr. Krimsky. Nobody in the prison system was concerned about Wanda
Jean’s behavior, because while she was imprisoned, she was a model inmate. In a structured
environment, her conduct caused nobody alarm. The “system” failed Wanda Jean, Gloria Leathers, and
society, as Wanda Jean was released from prison into a violent and turbulent world, to make thousands of
decisions daily in a stressful world. Wanda Jean’s world again became complicated when Gloria Leathers
was released from prison and came to live with her.
Wanda Jean and Gloria Leathers met while they were both incarcerated at Mabel Bassett Correctional
Center. Wanda Jean was released first and established herself in the community. Gloria was released
later and needed a place to stay. Wanda Jean welcomed her into her home, but their subsequent
relationship was very rocky.
During the two years they lived together, numerous arguments and altercations occurred, and police
were often summoned to their residence. As often as not, Gloria was the instigator of the violence. Wanda
Jean had filed a police complaint against Gloria for battery. It was a very explosive relationship.
On December 1, 1988, Gloria and Wanda Jean started arguing early in the morning. An argument took
place in a grocery store, where police were summoned. Gloria’s mother, Ruby Wilson, was present. The
argument subsided, if only briefly, while everyone went back to Gloria’s and Wanda Jean’s residence.
Gloria was moving out, and Wanda Jean was distraught.
Police were once again summoned to their residence. Officers stood by while Gloria packed her
belongings to leave. Wanda Jean was bleeding from a wound on her face that she said she suffered when
Gloria struck her with a three-pronged hand rake. A police officer at the house spotted the hand rake and
placed it in a basket of clothes that Gloria was carrying out of the residence to place in her car. Although
the situation between Gloria and Wanda Jean was still volatile, the officers left, having been called
elsewhere to handle a priority call. Only Wanda Jean, Gloria, and Gloria’s mother remained.
Gloria finished packing her belongings and left with her mother. The prosecution claimed that Wanda
Jean followed Gloria from the residence, but Wanda Jean says that she was going to the police
department to report the battery against her when Gloria struck her with the hand rake. In any event, all
three people ended up in front of the Village Police Department.
Wanda Jean and Gloria again argued outside of the police department, where Wanda Jean begged Gloria
to return home, but Gloria refused. Wanda Jean says that Gloria reached for the hand rake and tried to
assault her with it. Wanda Jean, armed with a small caliber pistol, shot Gloria once in a perceived self-
defense situation. Gloria crouched to the ground as Wanda Jean fled; Gloria told her mother, “Jean shot
me.” Two days later, Gloria died from her wound.
Wanda Jean did not know that Gloria had died. She was soon taken into police custody, and gave a
videotaped statement about the incident to police. The wound made by the hand rake to Wanda Jean’s
face is visible in the video. At the beginning of her statement, she is informed that Gloria died. Wanda
Jean is clearly and unmistakably distraught at the news. She lowers her head and cries. This is not the
reaction of a malice-aforethought, premeditated murderer.
Police had a hard time believing Wanda Jean’s self-defense story because they could not find the hand
rake. It was missing. At trial there was much discussion about what could have happened to the hand
rake. The prosecution argues that it never existed, that Wanda Jean made it up. The fate of the hand rake
had been a mystery until preparations for clemency proceedings were under way. One of Gloria Leathers’
relatives told a member of Wanda Jean’s clemency team that another relative had taken the hand rake and
disposed of it in Tulsa.
Wanda Jean’s family approached an Oklahoma City defense attorney to represent her. Hearing the facts as
related by Wanda Jean’s family, the attorney thought the matter would be a manslaughter or second
degree murder case, to be plea negotiated, and quoted the family a $5,000 fee. They agreed to pay, and
gave him a pittance down payment. Appearing in court for Wanda Jean, the attorney learned the case
would be tried as a first degree malice aforethought premeditated murder death penalty case. He was
horrified. He had never defended a capital case before. As a solo practitioner, he doubted he was
The attorney told Wanda Jean’s family the bad news. He said he could not defend her for only $5,000, and
wondered how much more money they could pay. He was again horrified to learn that not only could
Wanda Jean’s family not pay any more, but they could pay only $800 – total – toward the original $5,000 fee.
He informed them he would have to withdraw and let the public defender’s office undertake her
The attorney was horrified a third time when the court refused to allow him to withdraw. The court viewed
his defense of Wanda Jean Allen as some type of required bro bono activity. Not only would the court
refuse to allow the attorney to withdraw, it refused to allow the public defender’s office to assist him. It
also refused to appoint for him, at state expense, an investigator to help him prepare for the trial.
This solo practitioner attorney was forced, against his will, to defend without tools or resources, a death
penalty murder charge.
Predictably, the defense got what it paid for. The attorney did not have the resources or skills necessary
to defend Wanda Jean. He did not know about the 1975 psychological evaluation where Wanda Jean was
diagnosed as mentally retarded. He did not know anything about Wanda Jean’s psychological makeup. The
jury never got to hear this critical evidence.
The prosecution painted a picture of Gloria Leathers as a meek, mild, innocent, victim of a tragic crime,
the victim of a stalker. It even called Wanda Jean a “hunter.” Yes, Gloria’s death was tragic. But she was
not the angel the state made her out to be, in a pathetic but successful attempt to further discredit Wanda
Jean’s self-defense claim. The defense attorney was unprepared to show the jury that Gloria had killed
before, having killed someone in a bar fight in Tulsa. Wanda Jean knew that Gloria had killed before, and
was understandably concerned when Gloria approached her with the hand rake.
The penalty-stage defense was utterly pathetic. Wanda Jean was portrayed as perfectly “normal,” a well-
adjusted child of a normal family upbringing. With preparation, the attorney could have shown the jury that
Wanda Jean was mentally retarded, the product of a family living in abject poverty. He could have shown
that Wanda Jean never received the help Dr. Krimsky suggested she receive, which might have
prevented two deaths.
After Wanda Jean’s trial, new lawyers obtained a neuropsychological examination for her, as Dr. Krimsky
had suggested 20 years earlier. Remarkably, except for a statistically insignificant small increase in her IQ,
the examination ratified exactly what Dr. Krimsky wrote about 20 years prior.
Dale G. Watson, a clinical psychologist, wrote that:
The results of the neuropsychological testing gave
consistent and clear evidence of cognitive and sensori-motor
deficits and brain dysfunction. . . . Her intellectual capacity
is compromised with a Full Scale IQ of 80, which is
considered borderline [mentally retarded].
Wanda Jean’s jury never heard this information. It did not know that Wanda Jean was far from normal. It is
been shown time and time again that evidence of mental retardation is a factor that often spares people
from the death penalty. The Wanda Jean never got the chance to have her jury consider her true mental
Numerous people called, e-mailed, faxed, and wrote to the Pardon and Parole Board asking that Wanda
Jean receive a clemency recommendation. Of note is a statement signed by several people, inmates, staff
members, volunteers, and visitors to Mabel Bassett Correctional Center, asking the Board to spare
Wanda Jean’s life.
Wanda Jean Allen was prosecuted by a prosecutor’s office that misrepresented Gloria Leathers’
character. She was tried in a court that refused to appoint her a qualified and prepared lawyer and
investigator. She was defended by an attorney who did not want her case, tried to get out of her case, and
futilely begged the court for assistance. Wanda Jean was judged and condemned by a jury that never
knew she was mentally retarded and brain damaged.
The state and federal appellate courts rejected Wanda Jean’s appeals, finding that her trial attorney did
not perform deficiently, and finding no reason to stop the execution on mental retardation grounds. At the
clemency hearing, the State informed the Pardon and Parole Board that Wanda Jean had graduated from
high school and gone to college – both patently false assertions.
Wanda Jean was denied clemency, and was executed on January 11, 2001.
Less than one year later, the United States Supreme Court began issuing stays of execution to mentally
retarded inmates under sentences of death. On June 20, 2002, eighteen months after Wanda Jean’s
execution, the Supreme Court ruled that mentally retarded people cannot be executed. The case is Atkins
versus Virginia, Supreme Court case number 00-8452.
The last months of Wanda Jean’s life and her legal team’s efforts to spare her life can be seen in the HBO
documentary “The Execution of Wanda Jean,” which still airs regularly on HBO channels.