The Priest Who Invented Lethal Injections
The calls for unity remind me of a line I often heard repeated in reference to the political cultures of both my college and seminary:
“All the conservatives say that we’re too liberal, and all the liberals complain that we’re too conservative!”
The two schools I attended – Davidson College and Princeton Theological Seminary – prided themselves on being ideologically diverse while maintaining a solidly moderate institutional average. They branded themselves as spaces where students across the political (and theological) spectrum could learn from each other, living in a tenuous peace.
Weekly chapel services at my seminary nearly always included some version of an exhortation to “make every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” But insistence upon unity presupposes compromise, which in turn assumes all parties approach common ground on equal footing. Politically, we know this is rarely the case. Power resists equal distribution.
I’ve been thinking about unity, compromise, and power a lot this past week - not only because of the second impeachment, but also because of the three federal executions scheduled for this week. Two have already been carried out – Lisa Montgomery and Corey Johnson – and Dustin Higgs’ execution is set for tonight.
A death sentence leaves no room for compromise. No matter the method – lethal injection, electric chair, gas chamber, firing squad, or the gallows – the irreversible outcome is the same. But the impossibility of compromise regarding the death penalty won’t stop people from trying. In fact, the rollout of each new method of execution represent an attempted compromise to make capital punishment more “humane.”
The most recent iteration of the death penalty – lethal injection – appears to offer a less gruesome alternative to the other methods mentioned. However, we now know this isn’t the case:
The second drug that paralyzes their muscles serves no medical purpose. It was put into the cocktail in the first place was as a mask in case the first drug didn’t work effectively. It’s a potent acid that people have described as being like fire going through your vains. “You have this burning acid going through your body and you’re paralyzed, all your voluntary muscles are paralyzed, so you can’t say ‘I’m awake, I can feel everything, this is agony.’” It’s the second drug that could make the execution most torturous and the thing that meant that we the witnesses, the viewers, the public, wouldn’t know that it was torture.”
Lethal injection is especially cruel in the cases of Johnson and Higgs, as they were both diagnosed with COVID-19, which could make an already excruciating procedure even worse.
These are consequences Bill Wiseman - the liberal arts grad turned politician turned priest responsible for writing lethal injection into existence - couldn’t have foreseen. Regardless, his story illustrates a heartbreaking example of the inadvertent consequences of compromising your convictions in politics.
Bill Wiseman grew up in a family of ministers, but he wasn’t interested in the family business. He attended Davidson College – my alma mater – and graduated with a degree in philosophy. In true liberal art graduate fashion, he wandered for years:
“By his account, [he] wanders through two and a half literature degrees, he becomes a poet, he drinks a lot of corn liquor, and finally ends up in construction where he starts working with a lot of politicians and he’s like ‘Oh! This is my calling, I want to be a politician!’”
Wiseman – a Republican – won a seat in the Oklahoma legislature in 1974. He loved his job; as he would later say, “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.”
Wiseman was fiercely opposed to the death penalty. Luckily for him, in 1972 the Supreme Court abolished capital punishment because they said it was being applied unfairly and haphazardly “in a way,” one Supreme Court Justice described, “that can only be described freakish.” Nearly fifty years ago, the Supreme Court explicitly named that people of color and low-income populations were being disproportionally sentenced to death. In the Court’s view, this was a clear violation of the 8th amendment’s clause protecting citizens against “cruel and unusual punishment.”
The public was furious. Nationwide support for reinstating the death penalty jumped by nearly 15% in just two years. Thirty-five states rewrote their death penalty laws in response. Just four years later, in 1976, the Supreme Court reversed their decision; they declared the death penalty constitutional so long as states could administer the death penalty both fairly and humanely.
Bill Wiseman entered the Oklahoma state legislature in 1974, smack dab in the middle of the debate. While he remained fiercely opposed to the death penalty, his highest priority, like most politicians, was retaining his seat:
Wiseman: I knew that capital punishment…it just doesn’t work. It doesn’t make sense. I couldn’t see any way to justify it. I also knew, that if I’d voted against it from my district, I would run a high chance of getting whooped. And I was having the best time and I didn’t wanna get whooped. So, I was in a real dilemma.
Interviewer: What did you do?
Wiseman: The wrong thing.
He polled his constituents and found that over 80% were strongly in favor of reinstating the death penalty. Though he rationalized that this was the will of his constituents, he still 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."
With his vote in favor of capital punishment, he aligned himself with a majority of 93-5. It was a decision he regretted almost immediately: “For whatever reasons, for ego or vanity, I knowingly made a decision when I knew it was wrong. It made me pretty sick, disgusted with myself.”
Wracked with guilt, Wiseman became obsessed with a proposed amendment to the bill with a vaguely worded provision that capital punishment be more humane than the United States’ previous methods of execution. In an effort to assuage his conscience, he latched onto the project.
He consulted anesthesiologists, but doctors refused to be involved with a project that would so obviously violate the Hippocratic oath to do no harm (this is why to this day lethal injections are performed by people without medical licenses, and why botched executions are not uncommon).
As Wiseman continued his research, he received a call from Jay Chapman, the state medical examiner. Chapman had previously worked in Colorado overseeing that state’s electric chair executions. 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 dictated his solution to Wiseman, who scribbled the following words 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.”
Wiseman took this sentence written word-for-word on a legal pad and crafted it into an amendment, essentially inventing lethal injection in the United States. In 1977, Oklahoma became the first government in the world to adopt death by lethal injection.
Bill Wiseman introduced lethal injections with the hope that executions would become more “humane,” even as he remained deeply morally opposed to it. Instead, he inadvertently made executions even easier to justify. The veneer of serenity proved to be a gift to capital punishment advocates, as the apparent absence of pain made the death sentence more publicly palatable.
He claimed to keep track of each execution by lethal injection, recounting hundreds of sleepless nights: “I don’t hear the words lethal injection or execution or anything else without feeling a tug because it’s tied to me. I’ll always be tied to it.”
However, he also said that he never found the courage to personally witness someone executed by the method he wrote into existence. Wiseman later reflected that “It’s a terrible thing to have one’s reputation be based on coming up with a new way to kill people.” But it’s also a terrible thing to confine yourself abstraction, to philosophize about the nature of the word “humane,” without seeing the terrible consequences of such a disembodied debate about the theoretical value of a human life.
Wiseman didn’t speak out until 2001, after working his way through a theology degree. He published an article in the Christian Century entitled “Confessions of a Former Legislator: Inventing Lethal Injection.” It’s clear in this article that he lived with terrible guilt: “there is still terrible violence in taking a life, no matter how gently it is done, and for those takings I am responsible.”
Wracked with guilt, in 2005 Wiseman was ordained an Episcopal priest in a Tulsa church. He committed to make preaching and advocating for the abolition of the punishment he invented a central part of his ministry. Less than two years later, however, he would die in a plane crash, unable to carry out the ministry he’d intended.
I wonder what might have happened if Bill Wiseman had chosen to attend one of the 650+ executions that took place in the time it took for him to publish his “confession.” What might have happened if he’d chosen to confront the visceral reality of a form of death he legislated? Maybe the conviction of his conscience would’ve stirred him to action a little sooner. Maybe he wouldn’t have waited almost 40 years to begin advocating for abolition. I wonder if he would have learned sooner that there’s no such thing as a “humane execution.”
We liberal arts graduates often pride ourselves on making connections across disciplines to find creative solutions to impossible problems. Bill Wiseman’s effort to make lethal injections more “humane” ironically embodies that spirit. His story makes me wonder about the cost of compromise and who ends up paying the price for the cost of bipartisan unity.
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