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Why Should LGBT Citizens
Care About the Death Penalty?

By Michael Heflin
Amnesty International-USA

As you read these words, barring some last minute legal miracle or final hour reprieve by the Governor, Wanda Jean Allen, an African-American lesbian woman, may have already been executed.

Why should the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (lgbt) community care about Wanda Jean Allen's execution or the larger issue of the death penalty?
Wanda Jean Allen

The answer to this question ought to be clear. As a community that faces discrimination and marginalization, we should be particularly concerned about the administration of justice in this country especially when it involves fundamental issues of life and death.

The death penalty is a basic human rights violation and is administered in this country in an arbitrary and discriminatory manner in clear contravention of international human rights standards.

In many ways Wanda Jean Allen's case is reflective of the general administration of the death penalty in this country.

  • Ms. Allen is an African-American. In the US there is clear evidence that the death penalty is administered in a racist manner, resulting in a disproportionate number of those on death row being African and Latino Americans.

  • Wanda Jean Allen comes from a background of poverty. The vast majority of those on death row in the U.S. are poor or from very limited means, and therefore receive inadequate legal representation. Ms. Allen's lawyer was handling his first death penalty case and was forced to mount her defense with a total payment of $800, with no co-counsel, no investigator and no resources to hire expert witnesses.

  • Wanda Jean Allen is seriously mentally impaired. At the age of sixteen she underwent a psychological evaluation that revealed serious mental disabilities including mental retardation. The United States is one of few countries in the world that allow for the execution of those with serious mental disabilities, including mental retardation.
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  • Wanda Jean Allen is also a lesbian who was sentenced to death in 1989 for the killing of her partner Gloria Leathers in Oklahoma City in 1988. There were references to her sexual orientation during her trial, including negative stereotypes about lesbians that may have prejudiced her case. At trial the prosecution asserted that Wanda Jean Allen "wore the pants in the family," that she was the dominant partner and exercised control over Ms. Leathers. The prosecution stressed the lesbian nature of relationship early and often.

    Wanda Jean Allen is not the only lgbt person in this country facing execution.

    In Texas an openly gay man, Calvin Burdine, awaits his execution date, following a trial at which he was represented by a lawyer who, at an earlier court hearing, referred to homosexuals as "queers"and "fairies," and did not object to a statement by the prosecutor that: "sending a homosexual to the penitentiary certainly isn't a very bad punishment for a homosexual."

    He also failed to exercise his right to remove three prospective jurors during jury selection who admitted to being prejudiced against homosexuals. He did not interview a single witness in preparing Calvin Burdine's defense and was seen to fall asleep repeatedly during the trial.

    In another Texas case, Glen Charles McGinnis, an openly gay African-American man, was executed on January 25, 2000. He was sentenced to death for a crime he committed at the age of 17. International law prohibits the use of the death penalty against child offenders, those under the age of 18 at the time of their crime. Mr. McGinnis was also sentenced to death by an all white jury after the judge in his case released all the prospective black jurors from the jury pool.

    None of the hardships and injustices suffered by Mr. McGinnis, Mr. Burdine, and Ms. Allen justifies their commission of the crimes for which they have been convicted. Each should be held accountable for his or her crimes in a justice system that respects the basic human rights of victims and defendants alike.

    The above cases are, however, clear examples of the arbitrary and inhuman administration of the death penalty in this country. Because these cases involve members of our own lgbt community they, present us with profound questions about our commitment to justice in the same way that the larger issue of the death penalty asks such questions of Americans as a whole.

    Are we really committed to seeking human rights protections for all the members of our community, even those most marginalized, or are we only committed to pursuing a narrow human rights agenda -- one that elevates us to the same standards as other Americans, but maintains the injustices in our own community that reflect those of the larger society?

    Amnesty International is committed to the worldwide abolition of the death penalty as a fundamental human rights violation. Many lgbt organizations and leaders have now taken a strong and principled stand in opposing the death penalty. We encourage you to do the same ? for the sake of others like Wanda Jean Allen.
    Michael Heflin is the director of Amnesty International USA's OUTfrontprogram.


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