NOTE: This is the second (and final) installment of an interview with Mike Farrell, a life-long opponent of the death penalty. Part I appeared on February 1, 2012.
Anne: How has your public work affected your view of the criminal justice system in the United States in terms of death penalty cases involving questionable sentencing?
Mike Farrell: It has taught me that the criminal justice system in general is not just. It is anti-human, degrading and shows no interest in helping those who get caught up in it learn how to comport themselves appropriately and become productive citizens. It is, in my view, a destructive system that makes huge profits for some people and companies at great costs, not only to those who are incarcerated, but to our entire society.
Anne: The execution of Donald Beardslee (California, 2005) attracted a number of anti-death penalty advocates. Can you speak of a specific capital punishment case in which you were involved that addresses state-sanctioned killings involving persons with limited capacity to understand their actions and/or subsequent fates?
MF: There are too many: Robert Alton Harris in California, Johny Paul Penry in Texas (has not yet been executed, but they keep trying), Ricky Ray Rector in Arkansas, Barry Fairchild in Arkansas, Wanda Jean Allen in Oklahoma. The Supreme Court’s 2002 decision regarding Daryl Atkins, in Virginia, stopped the execution of mentally challenged individuals, though they left the determination of who was or was not mentally challenged up to the states. Human Rights Watch released a study (around 2005) stating that we have more than 250,000 demonstrably mentally ill people in our prison system, more than in our mental institutions.
Anne: Do you believe that it is an individual state’s right to impose a moratorium on capital punishment, or do you feel that the issue should be addressed in a broader forum (by higher court’s outside one’s state)?
MF: I think, especially given the current makeup of the United States Supreme Court, it will be a state-by-state process that will create (as did the Simmons Case about the death penalty for juveniles) a clear sense that the people of the United States recognize that there is no longer any value to maintaining the death system.
And yes, of course, each state has the right to declare a moratorium on state killings. It happened here in California six years ago, though it was imposed by a judge. We’re still waiting for the final determination. In Illinois, then-governor Ryan declared a moratorium and ordered a study of the death penalty. That eventually led to his clearing the state’s Death Row by commuting almost all death row inmates to life without parole. He pardoned some outright.
New Jersey did such a study and decided to end the death penalty. Pennsylvania has just ordered a study and I hope it has the same result.
Anne: A number of individuals who have been sentenced to Death Row in specific cases across the United States have also been exonerated due to DNA evidence. How does such testing (and its results) help bolster your argument that the courts oftentimes “get it wrong” in terms of sentencing a person to death for crimes for which they have been found guilty?
MF: I think the exoneration of 139 people (so far in the modern era) from our death rows, after being charged, tried by a “jury of their peers” and sentenced to death, proves the fallibility of the system and demonstrates the wrong-headedness of giving the state the right to take a life.
I would quickly add, though, that most of those exonerated have not been freed because of DNA [evidence], but because of the dogged pursuit of justice by caring lawyers, relatives, students and people of faith. DNA evidence, while it can be an enormously powerful tool, is not available in most murder cases.
Anne: If you witnessed (or read reports of) the Republican presidential debate in September 2011, where Texas governor Rick Perry was cheered regarding his stance on capital punishment (which he supports as a “state’s right” issue), what message do you believe the audience’s rancorous behavior sent in terms of the national reception to (and acceptance of) capital punishment?
MF: I don’t think the frightening (and, to me, disgusting) behavior of the audience at that debate is representative of the vast majority of the poeple in this country. While some polls show a majority of Americans still support capital punishment, those numbers are falling, and, in fact, when people are offered the option of life without parole (LWOP), more indicate support for LWOP.
Anne: Your anti-capital punishment advocacy through the year has led you to write, speak and organize nationally and internationally on various aspects relating to death penalty and human right issues. Can you discuss some of your current projects and how they might serve to initiate a broader political discourse in the area of anti-death penalty matters?
MF: I chair Death Penalty Focus, an ablition organization based in San Francisco, California. We have been working to help people better understand the truth about the death system and how it is failing us–in fact harming us–as a society. With the rise in public awareness of the failings inherent in capital punishment, we are now at a point where a coalition has been put together to put the question of replacing the death penalty with life without parole here in our state. It will save the state millions of dollars, provide more funding for police to solve the huge number of unsolved rapes and murders, and ensure that we no longer run the risk of killing an innocent person.
A case with which I’ve been involved for many years is that of Joe Giarrantano, in Virginia. Joe was sentenced to death in 1979, and was spared at the last minute from execution in 1991 by then-governor Douglas Wilder. We made a strong showing that Giarrantano deserved a new trial, but, again, Governor Wilder went halfway. He spared Joe’s life but tuned the question of a new trial over to the state’s Attorney General, who was not inclined to take the risk of Joe’s being found innocent (which I believe him to be). For that reason, Joe remains in prison to this day, a fact that sickens me.
Anne: You have been the recipient of numerous awards and accolades for your decades-long efforts in raising awarness of various human rights issues. Undoubtedly your work has resonated with various “anti-groups” across the globe. Is there an exclusive award or accolade that has specific affection for you becuase you can clearly see the evidence and impact of your work?
MF: One doesn’t do this work to win awards. The progress that the abolition movement is making inspires me. The fact that New York, New Jersey, New Mexico, and Illinois have chosen to end the use of state killings makes me know we will prevail. But perhaps the “award” that means the most to me is that, despite the fact that he remains behind bars, Joe Giarrantano is alive and able to do good work helping fellow inmates in Virginia.
Anne: I believe that advocacy of a cause begins as a grassroots effort with a capacity to grow into a much larger movement. What can the average citizen do to involve him/herself in issues related to capital punishment and other human rights issues?
MF: If they care, people can read a bit, study it [human rights issues and death penalty cases] if they choose, and learn the facts about how the system is doing harm to all of us. When we spend more money on prisons than on colleges, there is something terribly wrong with our society. People need to be less quick to judge “wrong-doers” and more willing to look at the circumstances of the lives of too many people in our society who have been left behind and deemed invisible. If kids grow up thinking they have no value, they think no one else has any value either. If kids grow up surrounded by violence, how do we expect hem to undersand that violence is wrong?
We have work to do to make this society live up to its promise–for everyone.