SALON Daily Clicks: Newsreal

Former "M*A*S*H" star Mike Farrell talks about his fight to end the death penalty.

By Daniel Feingold

Published August 5, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

Thomas Thompson's life, which was scheduled to be extinguished by lethal injection at one minute past midnight, hung in the balance Monday after the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals blocked his execution in San Quentin's death chamber. California Attorney General Dan Lungren petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court for an immediate reversal of the Appeals Court decision, but it was not clear when the Supreme Court would rule.

Thompson's case has drawn nationwide attention partly because of the doubts expressed by former prosecutors and newspaper editorialists about his conviction on murder and rape charges. It is also significant in that it is one of the few executions that has been halted, even temporarily, in the past several years. Between 1992 and 1996, the rate of executions in the U.S. more than doubled from the previous five-year period, with 201 people put to death. This year, Texas alone has executed 24 people.

For anti-death penalty groups, these years have been an uphill struggle. However, that has not stopped a television star and movie actor from giving over most of his time to the cause. Mike Farrell, who played B.J. Hunnicutt in TV's "M*A*S*H," is president of the California-based Death Penalty Focus, a leading anti-capital punishment organization. Salon spoke with Farrell in Los Angeles.

Were you surprised by the 9th Circuit Court's ruling stopping the execution of Thomas Thompson?

I was a bit surprised by certain aspects of it but not by their reaction, because I believe that there are issues that deserve to be reviewed.

Yet a three-judge panel from the 9th Circuit had previously turned down the defense appeal.

A three-judge panel can turn out to be composed of three unsympathetic people, and it would seem that that's what happened. They were not interested in a real examination of whether the rights of the defendant were fully protected -- in spite of the fact that the judge who originally overturned the conviction was a very conservative justice appointed by Ronald Reagan.

Last Thursday, Gov. Pete Wilson rejected Thompson's clemency plea. How did you feel about that?

His denial of clemency was a parroting of the prosecution's case rather than a serious consideration of the new evidence that's been presented. And since it came out before the 9th Circuit Court's hearing, it has to be seen as a political attempt to pressure the court. I think it's obscene that political considerations enter into this kind of thing.

Of all the causes a Hollywood actor could have taken up, you chose one of the most unpopular. Why?

I was raised a Catholic, and that tradition said it was wrong to kill, period. It didn't mean it was wrong to kill if you were a bad guy and not wrong to kill if you were a good guy. So the death penalty has never made sense to me. I'm very active in the human rights movement, and I consider the death penalty to be the ultimate human-rights violation. If we say we believe in fundamental human rights, the value and dignity of the individual, I think the punishment for crimes has to be consistent with that ideal.

But don't even you look at a case like Polly Klaas and want to see her murderer receive the ultimate penalty?

No, and I frankly don't understand why I should. But I understand the family's reaction. If it were someone close to me who was murdered by some bloodthirsty fool, of course I'd want to cry out in pain and exact revenge. But the reason we have a system of laws is to separate one's immediate emotional reaction and allow society to say what is the most constructive response. And society, it seems to me, is far more positively served by having a system that puts that individual out of society for the rest of his life. Nobody's against punishing people for a crime. I think to stoop to the level of a killer, however, goes beyond punishment to the point of degradation.

How do you explain that to the families of murder victims who do support the death penalty?

What can one say? I talk from my perspective and they talk from theirs. A number of them I have met are inordinately bitter, angry, frustrated people. Some have taken their fury at what has happened to them personally and made it a kind of reason for being. I have great empathy and sorrow and sympathy for the plight of these people. But I think we're in danger of setting up what I would call a victim theology that says that because someone has been victimized that he or she has the authority to dictate to us what we should feel and do. I think that's wrong. I think these people need our attention, our succor, our support. But that doesn't mean they should be able to tell us how our society should perform in this kind of situation.

Strict law and order and pro-death penalty groups claim that the recent nationwide decline in violent crime is a result of the death penalty and harsher criminal penalties in general.

I think that's dead wrong. There have been innumerable studies that have indicated that there is simply no discernible deterrent effect to the death penalty. There's also an unwillingness to look at the fact that for a number of years the FBI's crime statistics have been on the decline, and not only in the states which were exercising their right to kill people. And it was because of new approaches to crime, community policing -- the kinds of things that we would have more money to support if we stopped killing people.

How do you try to get that point across to people?

We try to stop talking about the death penalty as an "issue" and talk about it as people. A lot of people believe that the state has a moral right to take life under certain grievous circumstances. But when they're acquainted with the reality of the practice of the death penalty -- that it is the poor, the minorities, the poorly represented who end up on death row, as opposed to the wealthy white who can afford a top-notch defense attorney -- then we can have a dialogue. That dialogue is: Does this system, as it exists in our society, make sense?

According to the polls, the death penalty does make sense.

I think that the general political support for capital punishment is an abstract consideration. When you get into actual people, actual cases and actual facts, that support quite often disappears. In fact, life without possibility of parole is far more popular, according to the polls.

What polls?

All the polls that include life without possibility of parole show that people prefer that option to death. The polls you hear about showing support for the death penalty are ones where people are simply asked, "In the case of murder, do you support the death penalty?" When it's explained that there are options like life in prison without possibility of parole -- including work and restitution as a result of the gains made from that work to the family of the victim -- the majority across the country have preferred that to capital punishment. It's also safer because we don't make mistakes that way and end up killing somebody who 20 years down the line may be determined to have been innocent.

If that's the case, why doesn't your organization try to get an initiative on the ballot in California to overturn the death penalty and replace it with a mandatory sentence of life without parole? Why not put this support to the test?

As a nonprofit organization we have to be very careful about what we do. But that strategy is being discussed in anti-death penalty circles and has met with a great deal of support. It is a very hard, very expensive, very long-term process. I do think the public would respond if you put something on the ballot that showed, as we can, that we'd save $1 million per trial by going for life without possibility of parole instead of the death penalty -- and that we could put half of that savings in a fund which would go to victims' families or some other worthwhile effort.

But does that serve the need for both personal and social catharsis in the case of truly heinous crimes, like, say, Timothy McVeigh and the Oklahoma City bombing?

It does in every advanced Western society except the United States. It does in the eyes of those who make up a national anti-death penalty organization called Murder Victims' Families for Reconciliation. And it also does away with a system that inherently contains the possibility of mistakes, and within which innocent people die.

Aren't there moments when you want to give up and put your energies elsewhere?

Of course, there are times when I want to just back away and go plant flowers. But there's no time when I want to back away and join the other side. That's just simply not what I understand being an American to be about. You either believe in things or you don't, and if you do, then you behave in a manner consistent with that belief.

I understand that somebody who is as far gone as some of these people isn't likely to be healed to a point where they are going to be trusted, productive citizens. But that doesn't mean there isn't some place for them. And I think that we arrogate to ourselves the position of God when we say -- as two district attorneys I recently debated said -- that there are some people who simply don't deserve to live.

Daniel Feingold

Daniel Feingold is the editor of Boulevards Los Angeles, an online city guide. He also writes for the Los Angeles Times, the L.A. Weekly and other publications.

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