Lambda Urges Stay of Execution for African-American Lesbian

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Wanda Jean Allen's case illustrates inequities of capital punishment
January 10, 2000

(NEW YORK, January 10, 2001) — Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund on Wednesday called on Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating to stay the execution of Wanda Jean Allen, an African-American lesbian and one of several gay inmates on death row despite improprieties during their trials, including anti-gay bias.

"We can't call our society civilized if we put people to death after unfair trials. In Wanda Jean’s case, and in the cases of Calvin Burdine and Gregory Dickens, anti-gay bias and many other departures from due process scream out that justice has not been done," said Lambda Legal Director Ruth E. Harlow, referring to two other death penalty cases involving gay litigants.

Unless Gov. Keating postpones Allen's execution, she will become the first woman to be put to death by the state of Oklahoma in nearly 98 years. Her execution date is set for January 11.

During Allen’s trial for the 1989 murder of her partner, the prosecutor invoked stereotypes of lesbians. Her lawyer, who had never tried a capital case before, was paid only $800, and had neither co-counsel nor resources for investigators and expert witnesses. Years after the trial, it was learned that Allen’s IQ is only 80, and that she suffered severe mental illness and retardation due to several head traumas. Harlow noted that the troubling aspects of Allen’s case mirror those of other people on death row, many of whom are people of color, are mentally disabled, or lacked the means to mount an adequate legal defense. Harlow also said that the prosecutor’s use of homophobia during the trial reflected the bias that many gay litigants, criminal or civil, still face in court. Two other death penalty cases on Lambda’s docket involve similar misconduct.

In one of those cases, Dickens v. Arizona, Lambda is supporting an appeal by a gay man on death row trying to obtain a new, unbiased trial. It has recently come to light that the judge who presided over Gregory Scott Dickens’ trial and personally sentenced him to death was at the same time writing vitriolic hate letters to his own gay son, saying among other things, “I hope you die in prison like all the rest of your faggot friends.”

Lambda also has filed an amicus brief on behalf of Calvin Burdine, a gay man whose lawyer slept through much of his murder trial. The prosecutor in his case urged the jury to sentence him to death, portraying Burdine as a danger to the community based on a 1971 conviction for consensual sodomy, and suggesting that, for a gay man, being incarcerated with other men would be enjoyable.

Said Lambda Executive Director Kevin M. Cathcart, “Lambda deals daily with the legal system’s fallibility and the effects of bias on court decisions. With this experience, we oppose the death penalty as a harsh and irreversible use of government power.” Lambda is the nation’s oldest and largest gay legal organization. Founded in 1973, Lambda is headquartered in New York and has regional offices in Los Angeles, Chicago, and Atlanta.

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Contact: Peg Byron 212-809-8585 x 230 Pager 1-888-987-1984


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