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A Guilty Man

He wanted to make capital punishment kinder. Instead, he believes, he made it easier.

BILL WISEMAN LEANS BACK in his battered desk chair, contemplating the killing scheduled for tomorrow. His cluttered home office is dim and quiet on this late spring afternoon, the venetian blinds pulled shut against the dense Oklahoma heat.

"I always think about my role, whenever I hear about a capital case being tried," he says. "It's always with me, like an old wound."

Wiseman has never met George Miller, the convicted murderer slated for execution tomorrow, nor anyone else involved in the case. But he will be inescapably connected with Miller's death. Nearly 30 years ago, as a young state legislator, Wiseman wrote the bill that made Oklahoma the first jurisdiction in the world to adopt lethal injection as a means of execution. The method has since been embraced by 37 of the 38 death-penalty states; in 21 it's the only method used. Miller, a 37-year-old black man, will be its 797th victim nationwide.

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Wiseman pushed the concept into law in an effort to expiate his shame for having voted to restore the death penalty in Oklahoma, despite his deep moral opposition to it. By introducing lethal injections, he had hoped to at least make executions more humane. But at the same time, he now believes, he also helped make them more common, by making it easier for squeamish judges and juries to hand down the ultimate punishment. "In a sense," he says, "I bear the responsibility for those deaths."

Today, Wiseman's innovation is under fire as never before. In courts across the country, death-penalty opponents are attacking lethal injection as a violation of the Constitution's ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Citing new evidence suggesting that the method may actually cause excruciating, if invisible, pain, they have succeeded in at least stalling several executions. Meanwhile, thanks largely to the doubts raised by the many death-row inmates exonerated by DNA evidence, the overall number of executions has fallen by almost half in recent years, from 98 in 2000 to 59 last year.

None of that eases Wiseman's guilt. This year, after decades of wrestling privately with his regrets, he's getting ready to do something about it.

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