Inventing Lethal Injection

By Wiseman, William J., Jr. | The Christian Century, June 20, 2001 | Go to article overview
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Inventing Lethal Injection


Wiseman, William J., Jr., The Christian Century


From 1974 to 1980, William J. Wiseman Jr. served three terms in the Oklahoma state legislature as Republican representative of Tulsa's district 69. During his tenure he was the architect of what became known as the lethal-injection bill, which was introduced and passed in 1977. The bill made Oklahoma the first governmental body in the world to adopt lethal injection as the means of executing capital offenders. According to Bureau of Justice data for 1999, of 98 persons executed that year in 20 states, 94 were killed by lethal injection, three by electrocution and one by lethal gas. In the following article Wiseman reflects on his role in the legislative process.

IT WAS A LONG time ago but doesn't really seem like it. Perhaps because the years since I left the Oklahoma legislature in 1980 have been a kind of "anti-time," a period that has contained many good things, but that has never been the same as those days when I was wheeling through the halls of legislative history. I was bold and happy and sure that I was doing the Lord's work.

I had found what seemed to be my own voice and identity, a role which was a pure delight to me, at least in memory. For six years I was always sorry to go home, and eager to return to my work the next day or next week or next session. The only fear I had in those days was that something might snatch it all away, and thus take away the identity and purpose and pleasure in life that I thought I had found.

In other words, I was no different than any other legislator I've ever known: my highest priority was retaining my seat. Everything else was in a different category of regard and concern.

I didn't even sense approaching danger in 1976, when the news carried reports that the U.S. Supreme Court had struck down the death penalties of several states in Furman v. Georgia. In that case, the court held that juries would need to make separate decisions about guilt and punishment, and would need a clear list of factors on which to base their decision to execute a prisoner. The word soon got around that our Oklahoma death penalty was "belly up" and we'd need to do something to reenact our flawed death penalty.

I hated the idea. I'd been educated by Philadelphia Quakers as a child and majored in philosophy as an undergraduate. I knew better. The death penalty was at best unjustified. Moreover, I instinctively hated the moral cowardice I felt welling up in my gut.

Since the vote on capital punishment would come before my first filing period as an incumbent in early July, there was no question that I would vote yes. I was certain that my district would never forgive me otherwise, and I was having far too much fun to run any avoidable risks. So, in order to justify a vote that I knew would be wrong, I sent out a survey to the district to gauge constituents' views on capital punishment. The results were predictable. Well in excess of 90 percent of those responding were strongly in favor of capital punishment. At least I could rationalize to myself that I was reflecting the will of the people.

Yet when it came to the actual vote, the polling was small comfort. David Riggs, who represented blue-collar west Tulsa, stood bravely and almost alone to argue against the capital-punishment measure, and offered amendments to blunt and delay its effect. I voted for his amendments.

But I felt like Thomas Cranmer, who, when tried for heresy by Queen Mary, feared the stake so much that he recanted his earlier views, only to recant his recantation and get burned anyway. I took Cranmer's switching a step further. I feared political defeat so much that I planned to vote for something that I knew was wrong. But first I would flirt with the notion of standing briefly and uselessly for what I believed by supporting moral amendments, even though I knew all along that I would dart back to the Yes column when the final vote came. Cranmer died in the flames, terrified.

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