M*A*S*H Star Seeks End to Executions

News & Politics

Actor Mike Farrell -- most famous for his role as "B.J. Hunnicutt" in the TV series M*A*S*H -- has been a lifelong advocate of prisoners' rights and judicial reform. He is also one of the leading and most articulate opponents of capital punishment.

Farrell's organization, the California-based Death Penalty Focus, is sponsoring the largest ever anti-death penalty conference this week in San Francisco. The conference brings together thousands of activists from around the country to "build a unified strategy to end the death penalty."

AlterNet spoke to Farrell recently about the conference and the future of the death penalty.

AlterNet: Less than four years ago, the death penalty issue seemed to have been settled. Polls showed that a majority of Americans supported capital punishment and politicians tried to outdo each other with pro-death penalty rhetoric. Yet this year, the issue has captured national attention again and the anti-death penalty movement has gained fresh momentum. What changed and why?

Mike Farrell: The operative word here is "seemed." Many felt that it was a settled issue because the politicians want it to be. It shows how tough they are on crime. And the press has been either too busy or too cowardly to look below the surface.

The debate, as you suggest, has been re-energized, but that has been happening gradually over a number of years. Some stalwart voices were always out there working in the areas of religion, the law and in the grass roots. Sister Helen Prejean's book ... opened many eyes. Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon's movie of the book reached many more.

Two years ago, the Conference on the Wrongly Convicted and the Death Penalty at Northwestern Law School (co-sponsored by Death Penalty Focus) stunned both the media and the public by putting human faces on 29 of the then 76 people who had spent many years on death row. Some coming within hours of execution, and had been completely exonerated. The undeniable travesty of 13 exonerated and 12 executed in Illinois alone caused Governor Ryan to do the honest thing and call a halt to the killing.

Nebraska's legislature had voted for a moratorium based on a concern about racial discrimination a year earlier and New Hampshire voted to abolish a year later. Though both were vetoed by their governors, the impact was dramatic.

George Bush's horrific record in Texas, the history of Florida, Virginia and other states making horrible mistakes in pursuing capital punishment have introduced a "pucker factor," making Americans queasy about what had been taken for granted for far too long.

AlterNet: What does this renewed burst of soul-searching mean in terms of potential for substantive change in the future? And is change more likely at the state level than nationally?

Farrell: The trend is toward ending the death penalty. It will be achieved by the moratorium movement in some states, by abolition in others. The federal government, given a recent Justice Department report admitting racial, ethnic and geographic bias in the death penalty, is under increasing pressure to halt the killing.

One of the most frightening pieces of evidence that caused supporters of capital punishment to lose their moral footing is that, as most people today fully understand, the death penalty has no "deterrent" value. This in spite of what the two leading contenders for the Presidency of the U.S. said in a recent debate.

So to regain the moral high ground, some [death penalty supporters] have attempted to elevate retribution to the level of a virtue. How shameful! It is amazing to me when I think of the depths some are willing to stoop in order to save this ugly and unnecessary vestige of a time when we thought we couldn't do any better.

The next major moratorium, whether it be federal or in one state or another, will be a major blow to capital punishment. We at Death Penalty Focus are working on finding a way -- be it moratorium or whatever -- to end the killing here in California. But at the same time we're involved in many efforts across the country, most notably today with regard to the federal government.

AlterNet: Does the anti-death penalty movement have a strategy to build on this favorable climate?

Farrell: The "strategy" of the abolition movement will continue to be what it always has been: to continue to expose the brutal reality of state killing. [We believe] the American people will ultimately come to realize that it is racist in application, is only used against the poor, and implicates children, the mentally retarded and mentally ill.

It too often involves corrupt or hurried police, ambitious or corrupt prosecutors, and incompetent defense attorneys. [And it] costs two to three times the price of life in prison without possibility of parole.

We believe that given the true information, people will come to the conclusion that we 1) don't need it, 2) can't afford it either economically or morally, and 3) have a better, safer, more economical and more efficient alternative in life without parole.

AlterNet: There is a distinct split within the anti-death penalty movement between those who support moratoriums and those who support complete abolition. There seems to be greater mainstream support for moratoriums -- including from many conservatives. Is a moratorium the best we can do?

Farrell: Abolitionists recognize that moratoriums are a step toward ending the death penalty, because any honest assessment of the practice will conclude that it cannot be fixed and is beneath us.

The danger lies in those who are attempting to co-opt the moratorium movement by turning it toward a movement for "reform." The idea that all we have to do is tweak the system a bit and patch a few small holes in order to make it work better, so we can go on happily killing the "bad guys." That's a cheap and cynical attempt to derail what is clearly a movement toward ridding our country of the shameful secrets of capital punishment.

The worst part of it is that they know, these "reformers," that what they're trying to fix is beyond repair. Many of them want to save capital punishment not because they believe it does justice, but because they find it a useful political tool -- useful for their own personal advancement.

AlterNet: How does this week's conference fit into this broader picture?

Farrell: The conference will bring together people from all walks of life who will share information, intelligence, strategies and stories.

Experts will explain the approach taken in certain cases or certain parts of the country. Awards will be presented to some of the extraordinarily heroic individuals who have spent their time, energy and resources in pursuit of justice. Politicians will tell of their own journey from supporter of capital punishment to seeker of better alternatives.

Victim's family members will explain why the claim that the death of the perpetrator is a necessity for "closure" is a lie used by prosecutors for their own ends, but which further exploits the pain of these same families. People and organizations from outside the U.S. will tell of their own successful struggles and explain their desire to see our country come into harmony with the rest of the developed world by putting away this brutal, dehumanizing and unnecessary practice.

For more information about Death Penalty Focus, visit www.deathpenalty.org.

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