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Bill Wiseman

100 x 150 cm 

Oil on canvas 2008

Elected to House of Representatives 1974-80.

Responsible for Lethal Injection Bill 1977


 

As a young state legislator, Bill Wiseman voted against his conscience for the return of the death penalty. He later drafted 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 adopted by 37 of the 38 death-penalty states.

Bill slouched back in the armchair of his book-lined sitting room and apologised for the mess around him. Every available surface was laden with yet more books. As we talked about his time as a legislator in the 70s I could sense the conflict as his moral, intellectual and philosophical mind, steeped in academia and the theology of his childhood, cried out for him to vote against the death penalty while his love of his job pushed him to vote in favour. After making an impassioned speech against it, he hit the green button to vote for the death penalty to return.

Even the passing of over thirty years had not removed his sense of regret at his action. To appease his conscience he tried to humanise the process as the electric chair and gas chamber both resulted in terrible descriptions of flailing bodies and scorched corpses. Doctors refused to help him, citing the Hippocratic Oath, so he set about finding a method based on the process used to put his dog to sleep.

The system involves three injections: the first to anaesthetise, the second to paralyse to stop the body jerking violently, and the third to stop the heart. This new system was welcomed throughout the death penalty states and Bill was now left with the extra guilt that by making execution more acceptable he had inadvertently increased the number of executions ordered.

Bill dismissed recent concerns over the cruelty of his system as the fault of incompetent administration. He did accept that the use of non-medical staff, inadequate dosing and the difficulty of finding a vein, had meant a horrifically painful death for some inmates. 

In later years Bill followed in his father’s footsteps and became an ordained Minister. When I heard just six months later that he had been tragically killed in a plane crash, I could only hope that he had at last achieved the absolution of his own conscience and a final sense of peace.

Part of the interview with Bill Wiseman is available to listen to below but the quality may be poor so please click the button for the transcript.

“I made a…passionate speech against it, sat down and hit the green button. I mean I told them I didn’t want to vote, but I said, ‘I’m gonna vote for this thing, ‘cause I’m afraid not to, but I know this is a bad idea’. And I did feel terrible about this.”

"The problem happens, if you don’t give them enough barbiturate they’re gonna feel the pain of the potassium chloride, but they can’t let you know that they feel the pain. And that’s terrifying, I mean, and that happened!”