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A Guilty Man

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

Wiseman, still solidly built at 61, is today an administrator at the University of Central Oklahoma. Tousle-haired, gray-bearded, he's an odd sort of hybrid, a wisecracking, barbecue-loving, private-plane-flying good ol' boy and a deeply introspective intellectual. "Welcome to the ghetto!" he exclaims by way of greeting when I show up at the door of the little yellow-brick house he shares with his wife in Oklahoma City, on a street studded with government-subsidized apartment blocks. The place is crammed with books, from the shelves full of novels (Faulkner, Joyce) in the entrance hall to the piles of theological texts and a 38-CD set of the works of Shakespeare in his office in back, the door of which is graced with a dartboard and a "Beers of the World" poster. Some questions he answers with a simple, snappy rejoinder, others with 15 minutes of abstract philosophical musings.

Wiseman was steeped in religious thinking during his childhood in Philadelphia. His father and grandfather were both ministers, and his mother taught at the Quaker school Wiseman attended, where he imbibed their tenets of compassion and nonviolence. "My father is my huge hero," says Wiseman. "But the Quakers had as much to do with my moral formation as my parents." As a kid, he was convinced he would become a reverend himself, especially after his father took him to meet Billy Graham when he was 10. Wiseman was as entranced by Graham's celebrity as he was by his preaching. "It was great -- all these TV cameras and lights on him," he recalls. "I loved it."

As he got older, Wiseman strayed. "Was I always moral? Shit, no," he says. "I couldn't live the life of rectitude like my father." He liked to drink, smoke, party -- nothing evil, he assures me, just naughty.

He eschewed the seminary for North Carolina's Davidson College, where he majored in philosophy. He followed with a master's in literature from the University of Tulsa, Oklahoma, and went on to begin a Ph.D. in American literature, but he soon lost interest. Dropping out to go live in the North Carolina sticks, he spent a while writing fiction and poetry, doing construction work, and "drinking a lot of corn liquor." Eventually he returned to Oklahoma and started his own highway-building contracting business in the Tulsa area. That job brought him in touch with local politicians, and their jobs looked good to him. "I thought I could be very competent as a legislator. Second, I liked the idea that it gave me an identity. I've always lived in the shadow of my father," he says. "And it would be a chance to take all these ideas I have on ethics and moral behavior and social justice and do something about them." In 1974, he successfully ran as a Republican for the state Assembly.

Wiseman absolutely loved being a lawmaker. He can't say this often enough as he leads me on an impromptu tour of the grand, colonnaded state Capitol, only a few blocks from his house. It's been more than two decades since he was a legislator, but he still seems perfectly in his element striding the marble halls, slapping backs, cracking jokes, and swapping stories with friends from the old days.

"I must admit, staying in office became my top priority," he tells me later at his house. "I had an identity, a mission, all kinds of recognition. Anything that would threaten that would strike dark, hidden terror."

The threat turned out to be his own principles. The U.S. Supreme Court struck down capital punishment in 1972, but in 1976 opened the door for states to bring it back, provided they amend their laws to make it less arbitrary. Oklahoma legislators wasted no time introducing a bill to do just that.

Wiseman hated the idea. On a practical level, he didn't believe state-sponsored executions deterred others from killing, and morally he simply opposed taking human life. But he knew his conservative constituents would never forgive him if he voted his conscience. He even ran an informal telephone poll to make sure. "It was like 80 percent in favor, and the rest not sure," he says. "No one was opposed."

Searching for a way out, Wiseman asked his father what he thought, hoping the respected minister would assure him that capital punishment was morally impermissible. To his dismay, his father said that in some circumstances it was acceptable. "That took away my theological cover to vote against it," Wiseman says. "I was left on my own, as was right, to see if I had any moral gumption. And I didn't."

So in July of 1976, Wiseman found himself sitting under the stained-glass skylights of the Oklahoma House of Representatives chamber, pushing the green button to vote "yes." That put him safely amid the majority: The final tally was 93-5. "I just felt sick. I was actually executing people," he says. "I knew it was wrong, and I should have voted against it. But I didn't."

In an effort to salve his conscience while the bill was being debated, Wiseman latched on to another legislator's amendments to soften some of its provisions. They all failed, but one particularly intrigued him: a vaguely worded provision calling for the electric chair to be replaced with some more humane method of execution.

How, though, to kill a person painlessly? Wiseman first asked the Oklahoma Medical Association for help, but the doctors refused to get involved, lest they violate their Hippocratic oath to do no harm. Wiseman kept asking around until one day he got a call from Jay Chapman, the state medical examiner. Chapman had previously worked in Colorado overseeing that state's electric chair executions. In an essay he wrote for the Christian Century magazine, Wiseman recounted what Chapman told him about electrocutions: "When the lever is pulled, the body twists and shudders violently, cooks and sizzles obscenely, and emits horrible noises from the nose, mouth and anus.... Chapman said it was the ghastliest mode of death he could have conjured, short of slow torture, and that no sane person who witnessed it could possibly oppose its replacement by a less violent means of execution."

Chapman had an alternative. Sitting in Wiseman's little wood-paneled office in the Capitol, he dictated the following lines, which Wiseman jotted down on a yellow legal pad: "An intravenous saline drip shall be started in the prisoner's arm, into which shall be introduced a lethal injection consisting of an ultra-short-acting barbiturate in combination with a chemical paralytic." The barbiturate would put the condemned person to sleep, and then the paralytic would stop his heart and lungs. No struggle, no stench, no pain -- just a quick, merciful snuffing out of life.

Wiseman drafted a bill around Chapman's simple sentence and got it moving through the Legislature. A few hardline legislators complained that such an easy death was too kind a punishment; others raised concerns that the new technology might not pass constitutional muster, but most responded favorably -- particularly after Wiseman distributed grisly color photos of men killed by Colorado's electric chair. While the bill was still in the works, Wiseman attended a lecture by a prominent British criminologist at which someone in the audience asked the speaker what he thought of the idea of lethal injection. The criminologist declared it "a notion worthy of Nuremberg." Around the same time, a reporter friend suggested that such an easy, clean-looking way to kill would likely only lead to more executions. "It hadn't occurred to me," says Wiseman. "But he was right."

Wiseman's conscience stirred uneasily, but momentum carried the day. His bill passed by a wide margin and became law on May 10, 1977. Texas enacted an almost identical measure, modeled on Wiseman's, the very next day.

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