Mike Farrell, actor and life-long opponent of capital punishment, often and passionately speaks about the inhumanity of state-sanctioned killings and our collective response to it. He believes that there are “appropriate sanctions that protect society and punish wrongdoers without forcing us to stoop to the level of the least among us,” and he is hopeful that public response against capital punishment “will at least give [people] pause in their support for death.”
Among a myriad of reasons for his belief that capital punishment should be abolished, Farrell sees the abolishment as a cost-effective measure, arguing that a life sentence “spares us the barbarity of killing our own [as well as it] it teaches our children that violence will be punished, but not by emulating the violent.” We shouldn’t be willing, he asserts, to “continue to share the killing stage with some of the world’s worst human rights violators.”
In a recent interview, Farrell discusses his work over the years, what he sees as a viable alternative to capital punishment, and what he views as some of the greatest barriers to its repeal in the United States.
Anne: What experiences, if any, helped shaped your views on the need for the abolishment of the death penalty?
Mike Farrell: Working with a program for ex-offenders in the 60s took me into prisons for the first time. The soul-crushing dehumanization in these institutions troubled me deeply. I wondered how anyone whose life experience had been so miserable that he or she had responded by acting out in a violent or anti-social way and [who] ended up in one of these places could ever be expected to get better under the circumstances that were present.
I had been taught as a child that “thou shall not kill,” and I took it to heart. Believing that killing was wrong, I thought it was just as wrong for the state to do it as for an individual to do it, so I signed petitions and spoke against the death penalty in conversations but was not particularly active on the issue. After the death penalty was reinstated by the Supreme Court in the Gregg Decision (in 1976), I was contacted by Reverend Joe Ingle, who ran the Southern Coalition on Jails and Prisons. I was doing a television show at the time and Joe asked me to help him head off what he saw as a coming avalanche of killing by the State. Joe took me to my first Death Row, at Tennessee State Prison, and introduced me to a number of abolitionists with whom he worked. That began what has become thirty years of working to abolish capital punishment.
Anne: Do you believe that a person convicted of a heinous crime and sentenced to death is capable of being rehabilitated if given a life sentence without the possibility of parole?
MF: Absolutely. Of course it depends on the individual, but I believe in the ability of human beings to transform their lives. I’ve worked with many people over the years whose life experience has been so immiserating that it defies belief, but I’ve seen them overcome circumstances and experiences that defy the imagination and become powerful, meaningful, and productive citizens.
Let me quickly add that though I absolutely believe in the capacity of even the most damaged individual to transform his or her life, I realize that some may be so bent by the cruel circumstances of their experience that it would not be safe to release them into society. For that reason, I believe we should maintain the penalty of life in prison without the possibility of parole as a last resort.
Anne: If you are aware of the Troy Davis case (Georgia, September 2011), where worldwide attention–and much controversy–surrounded his execution, what response do you have to those who believe that Davis “got what he deserved” for his involvement in the killing of the off-duty police officer, despite overwhelming evidence that pointed to Davis’ innocence.
MF: I corresponded with Troy and knew his sister. Bless them both. I think it was a huge miscarriage of justice that the State of Georgia refused to stop the execution in spite of the serious doubts about his guilt and the international outcry against his execution. Those who support his having been executed, in my view, either do not fully understand the facts of the case or are blinding themselves to reality. Both views are further evidence of why we must stop this hateful process [of state-sanctioned killings].
Anne: Your involvement in the anti-death movement is long and varied. Can you discuss one or two particular cases wherein the convicted person’s repetitive claims of innocence led to a re-evaluation of their case and their (subsequent) sentencing to life without parole?
MF: Well, let’s be clear: The re-evaluation and re-sentencing of someone usually results when it is proven in court or demonstrated to a head of state that while the individual may be guilty, the circumstances of the crime, the mitigating factors in the individual’s life or the changes he or she has demonstrated while incarcerated show that death is not appropriate.
However, in some instances it’s not the proverbial ‘half a loaf.’ In the internationally known Pennsylvania case of Mumia Abu-Jamal, the federal court threw out the death sentence because of an error by the trial judge and ordered the Philadelphia District Attorney to either re-try the penalty phase of the case or agree to a sentence of life without parole. The D. A. appealed the decision and recently lost, so Abu-Jamal’s sentence has been changed to life without parole. For many people who believe him innocent, that is not a satisfactory conclusion to the matter.
I, for one, feel that Mumia Abu-Jamal never received a fair trial and deserves one. I can’t comment on his guilt or innocence since there are contradictory allegations and many contrasting “facts” that pollute the case, but it’s quite clear to me that he deserves a fair trial and will not–and should not–be content with a life sentence.
Anne: In Florida, there have been thirteen men who have been exonerated through DNA evidence. One of the men, Frank Lee Smith, died in prison (after having served 14 years behind bars) before his scheduled release date. Another man, James Bain, has the dubious distinction of having served, at 35 years, the nation’s longest sentence behind bars for a crime he did not commit. Has your work involved any aspect of court-ordered DNA evidence, and, if so, how has such DNA evidence impacted your work on capital punishment cases?
MF: I believe the DNA test in Frank Lee Smith’s case proved him innocent after he died in prison. That is a ghastly error and should move the people of the State of Florida to demand an end to capital punishment. I don’t see DNA [however] as the ‘magic bullet’ that will solve all the issues pertinent to capital punishment, but innocence projects are doing a fine job of using it to demonstrate–in over 250 cases so far–that wrongful convictions take place regularly.
It’s important to point out, though, that fewer than twenty of their [Innocence Projects across the nation] DNA exonerations have been for people sentenced to death. That’s because murders often take place without any traceable DNA (blood, semen or tissue) being left at the scene by the perpetrator.
Anne: In your work as an advocate against capital punishment, what do you see as some of the greatest barriers to its repeal in the United States? People’s attitudes? The courts’? An eye-for-an-eye mindset by victims’ families? People’s religious views?
MF: All of the above. Many of our nation’s citizens have been frightened into averting their eyes from a horrendously broken system by prosecutors’ stories and a sensationalistic press, both of which emphsize blood, gore and violence. Out of fear and revulsion, they go along with it, assuming the condemned are ‘getting what they deserve,’ and that ‘they [the accused] don’t deserve to live.’ These attitudes are bolstered, in some instances, by fundamentalist religious teachings, a vague notion that the Bible supports it, or a belief that the court and the law in general are handling things well enough, despite the fact that they are not.
Anne: Statistics show that people of color are disproportionately sentenced to death more frequenty than others accused of the same crime. Can you address the issue of racial disparities associated with death penalty sentencing among minorities and what perhaps accounts for such disparities?
MF: There’s no question that racism taints the use of the death penalty and everyone who pays attention knows it. Despite the Supreme Court’s unwillingness to face it in the McClesky Case many years ago, the rise and growing interest in the Racial Justice Act in this country is evidence of the inevitability of the exposure of the rampant racism in the criminal justice system and ultimately the end of the death penalty.
NOTE: This is the first part of a two-part interview with Mike Farrell. Farrell is perhaps best known as “Captain B. J. Hunnicutt” from the CBS show M*A*S*H, where he appeared from 1975-1983.
Farrell is actively involved in numerous abolition and human rights organizations, including: the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty; the Human Rights Watch, where he served as Co-Chair of the California Committee from 1994-2005; the Committee to Save Mumia Abu-Jamal, which he co-chaired with Ossie Davis from 1994-2002; and the ACLU, for its “active and effective opposition to the death penalty.” An activist in every aspect of the word, he was recently bestowed the Donald Wright Award for “Special Contributions to the Criminal Justice System” by the California Attorneys for Criminal Justice. He is the second person to receive the award who is neither an attorney or judge.