Dr Jay Chapman

The doctor who came up with the method talks about his legacy in Oklahoma and the U.S.

Jay Chapman never wanted to be known for creating the lethal-drug cocktail first approved in Oklahoma and copied nationwide.

Chapman is proud of his role in creating Oklahoma's first medical examiner system, and he'd rather talk about that. During 11 years as the state's first chief medical examiner, he moved from performing autopsies in the bedroom of an old Oklahoma City house to opening two modern facilities equipped with morgues.

But he knows that's not what people really want to hear about, at least not right now, after the botched execution of Clayton Lockett at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary on April 29 made international headlines and sparked a national debate.

Chapman's name continues to surface as people recall the history.

"I've become known as this father of lethal injection, which was never my intent," Chapman said in a telephone interview with the Tulsa World.

"My legacy to Oklahoma was to leave an established medical examiner system. In the midst of this, there was this tiny little blip that amounted to a few days."

Now 75 and living in California, he's mostly retired, although he still fills in for pathologists in his area and does consulting work.

Chapman came to the state in 1971 as a young pathologist after training in Virginia and Texas. Five years later, a U.S. Supreme Court ruling reinstated the death penalty in the country.

In 1977, the execution of Gary Gilmore in Utah — the country's first in a decade — was "a real media circus," Chapman recalled.

Gilmore's options under Utah law were hanging or facing a firing squad, so he chose the latter. A hooded Gilmore, strapped to a chair inside a bunker-style prison building, reportedly said: "Let's do it."

"The comment we made among ourselves in the office is, 'We put animals down more humanely than we execute prisoners,' " Chapman said.

Not long after that conversation, Chapman received a call from state Rep. Bill Wiseman, a Republican from Tulsa who had served three years in the House.

Chapman said Wiseman asked him: " 'Do you have suggestions as to how the inmates might be executed more humanely?' So I said, 'Well, yes, actually.' I went over to his office."

Chapman recalls Wiseman typing as he dictated a process that would use a two-drug combination. The bill Wiseman and Chapman came up with called for "an ultra-short-acting barbiturate in combination with a chemical paralytic."

In 1981, Chapman recommended the addition of a third drug, potassium chloride, to stop the heart.

Sodium thiopental, an anesthetic intended to render an inmate unconscious, would be the state's first drug of choice until supplies ran short in 2010. The Department of Corrections later switched to another barbiturate, pentobarbital, but changed its protocol last month when the agency ran out of that drug.

The DOC adopted a new protocol — the only one of its kind in the country — calling for 100 milligrams of a sedative called midazolam as the first drug and used it to execute Lockett. The execution of a second inmate, Charles Warner, has been stayed while the agency revises its protocol again.

Although lethal injection has been upheld by courts in Oklahoma and other states, the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution bans cruel and unusual punishment.

Wiseman sought Chapman's help to devise a more humane way to execute inmates, but public reaction in Oklahoma to Lockett's execution has mostly focused on the inmates' victims' pain.

Lockett was put to death for the murder of Stephanie Neiman of Perry in 1999. He shot Neiman, 19, twice and ordered an accomplice to bury her in a shallow grave while she was still alive.

Warner was sentenced to death for the 1997 rape and murder of 11-month-old Adrianna Waller, his roommate's daughter.

According to a 2007 study by Deborah Denno, a law professor at Fordham University School of Law, Chapman and Wiseman were not certain at the time the lethal-injection law passed "if or when lethal injection would be implemented or what drugs might be available."

"Unfortunately, such stunning unknowns had no impact on Wiseman's confidence in the procedure's potential success," Denno wrote.

"As Wiseman recounted, lethal injection (a name he said he created) had the following benefits in his mind: 'No pain, no spasms, no smells or sounds — just sleep, then death.' "

Debate ranged from whether using lethal injections to execute inmates would deter crime — some argued that criminals would fear the electric chair more — to whether it was more humane. Some lawmakers pointed out it was far cheaper than repairing the state's electric chair or building a gas chamber.

Before the vote, Wiseman reportedly gave each lawmaker two photos of an inmate who had died in the electric chair.

The measure passed the state Senate on March 2, 1977, by a narrow margin (26-20) and the House on April 20, 1977, by a vote of 74-18.

After the bill passed, Chapman was quoted in newspaper articles warning: "If the death-dealing drug is not administered properly, the convict may not die and could be subjected to severe muscle pain," Denno's study states.

About 16 minutes into the execution last week, witnesses watched as Lockett began rising up off the gurney, mumbling and writhing after he had been declared unconscious.

Records show that during Lockett's execution, a physician in the death chamber discovered that the lethal drugs had either been absorbed into his tissue instead of a vein, leaked out of his body, or both.

The prison did not have enough drugs on hand to complete his execution, and the doctor said another viable vein could not be located, anyway.

DOC Director Robert Patton said the malfunction occurred because the IV line "was blown." When asked to elaborate, Patton said Lockett's vein "exploded."

Patton said he ordered the execution halted and that Lockett later died on the gurney — 43 minutes after the lethal injection began.

Chapman and other medical professionals interviewed by the World say they question that explanation.

"From reading the media and, of course, having no first-hand knowledge, it appears that the (IV) line was not well placed. ... Veins do not explode. I think all that happened was that the drugs that were injected infiltrated into the tissues around the vein, and, of course, this would cause pain," Chapman said.

According to a 1990 Tulsa World story, Wiseman received national attention for his role in the lethal-injection law but said: "It's not one of the things you put in a scrapbook for your grandchildren to look at."

"I wish I had a nobler monument than that sometimes," he told the World.

Wiseman, who later became an ordained Episcopal priest, and four others died when a plane he was piloting crashed near Glenpool in 2007.

Chapman left Oklahoma in 1982, and in the years that would follow, other states and other countries adopted his model for lethal injection. He said he supports the death penalty "because throughout the years I've obviously done many, many autopsies on homicide victims."

"This was just something that was asked of me," he said. "I was young at the time. I had no idea that it would ever amount to anything except for Oklahoma."