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Focus on the Death Penalty:
An Interview with Mike Farrell

by Richard Deats

Mike Farrell, actor/producer/director, is a human rights activist and opponent of the death penalty. He is president of the board of directors of Death Penalty Focus of California, and co-chair of Human Rights Watch in California. Fellowship editor Richard Deats interviewed Farrell in January.

Fellowship: Mike, why did you start working against the death penalty? What beliefs and/or experiences led you to take up this cause?

Farrell: I've opposed the death penalty as long as I can remember. I was raised a Catholic, and though I no longer practice Catholicism, I think the fundamental teachings of Jesus made a deep impression and have stayed with me. Because of that influence and the dynamics of my own young life, I've always identified with and been sensitive to the needs of the underdog.
Beyond the basic belief, though, and a willingness to put my name on the occasional statement or petition, a nominal opposition was about the extent of it until I was approached by Joe Ingle, a minister of the United Church of Christ, in about 1977 or '78. Joe ran the Southern Coalition on Jails and Prisons, out of Nashville, and he talked to me about his concern that the death machine was cranking up again. Gary Glimmer's death had opened the door and, he was convinced, many more would follow. I traveled the country with Joe, visited Death Row for the first time, and got to know many members of the abolitionist network.
From there it was an inexorable process. One of the people I met through Joe was Marie Deans, who left his organization to form the Virginia Coalition on Jails and Prisons, in Richmond. She asked me to get involved in the case of Joe Giarratano, a young man then scheduled to die, whom she was convinced was innocent. After many years and an international campaign, Governor Wilder spared Giarratano's life.

Fellowship: How do you express your opposition to the death penalty?

Farrell: In every way I can. I currently chair Death Penalty Focus, an abolition group based in California, and CO-chair Human Rights Watch/California. I have been the CO-chair, with Ossie Davis, of the Committee to Save Mumia Abu-Jamal for a number of years. I write, debate, speak, discuss, argue and do whatever I can to bring about a better understanding of the inequities attached to this ugly process.

Fellowship: What have you learned in visiting prisons and coming to know personally the cases of those prisoners who are on Death Row?

Farrell: I've learned that the death penalty is one of the ugly legacies of slavery and classism in America. It is racist in application, is primarily if not exclusively used against the poor and ill-represented, it entraps the mentally ill and mentally damaged, the innocent and those who were children when they committed the crimes for which they are condemned. Worst of all, I've learned that despite claims to the contrary, most people in America prefer life in prison without possibility of parole to the death penalty. But that information rarely gets out, because cowardly politicians have come to believe that it is in their own best interests to maintain capital punishment in order to demonstrate how tough they are on crime.

Fellowship: Are there particular cases that have profoundly touched you?

Farrell: Of course. All cases are immensely moving, especially when one meets the individuals in question and recognizes their innate humanity, but the case of Joe Giarratano stays with me because I was intimately involved in it for years. I came to know and admire Joe. I am thrilled that we were able to save him from the executioner, but enormously frustrated that we have not yet been able to get the state of Virginia to grant the new trial that is so obviously deserved in this case. That being so, Joe remains in prison and is the subject of much negative attention from those who run the Virginia Department of Corrections, because he is seen as one whose victory exposes their own failings.

Fellowship: Do you find the sentiments of people beginning to change, with more starting to oppose capital punishment, or is it still strongly favored?

Farrell: There is no question that things are changing. The change that I've seen developing over the past few years, particularly with the attention paid to the phenomenon of the innocent being released - now eighty-five since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976 - has taken a quantum leap with the action of Governor Ryan of Illinois in February. His declaration of a moratorium on executions because of the flagrant failure of the criminal justice system in his state (thirteen men have been exonerated and released from Death Row, while twelve have been executed since the reinstatement there in 1978) has caused a surge of activity across the country. Moratorium and abolition legislation is being offered in a number of states by politicians who have heretofore been cowed into silence on the issue. Newspaper editorials across the country now call for an end to killing, based on their understanding that the inequities in the Illinois system are not confined to that state. Events like the Diallo case in New York and the Ramparts Division cases in Los Angeles have awakened people to the reality of widespread police corruption in the US and raise questions as to what it all means in terms of the integrity of the administration
of justice.

Fellowship: Why do you think we in the US are so different in this regard from the other Western democracies, which do not have the death penalty?

Farrell: I think it's mostly a function of our citizens' legitimate concern for public safety having been manipulated by crafty politicians and a willing press. They have bought the essentially racist and classist line that suggests that those lower-class, darker-skinned people are the cause of the problems and that we must trust the politicians to know how to deal with them. Tougher laws, longer incarceration, more and more draconian conditions of confinement, dehumanization, and death dealt out by a generally smug, paternalistic, authoritarian power structure have resulted - and it's hard for people, having bought this line without looking beneath the surface for so long, to know how to fix it.

Fellowship: What approach do you find to be most effective in the work against capital punishment?

Farrell: I find public education to be the most hopeful and effective means to encourage change. First people need to have a better comprehension of the problem. Then they need to be encouraged to understand that 1) they have a responsibility to do something about it, 2) they have the intelligence and the ability to make the necessary changes, and 3) it is in their best interests, and the best interests of their children and their grandchildren, to do it.

Fellowship: What is the alternative to capital punishment? Are there particular countries or places that offer a more humane way of dealing with those who commit heinous crimes?

Farrell: The obvious, most effective, safest, and best way to deal with those who commit violent crime is to separate them from society. In a civilized society, we would make available the necessary resources to bind the wounds and meet the needs of those who act out negatively so that they would not continue that behavior upon release. In the case of those who are either so damaged that they can't be healed and turned into productive citizens or whose crime is so heinous that they have forfeited their right to freedom, the appropriate punishment is life in prison without possibility of parole. To this should be added the requirement of work, with a portion of the money earned going to either the family of the victim or to a victims' relief fund.
All other developed Western democracies have opted for a form of life without parole instead of the death penalty. Except for a few really noxious outlaws, even those benighted nations that do continue to use the death penalty exempt those who were children when they committed their crimes - this based on the understanding that children don't have the maturity to fully comprehend the consequences of their actions. The United States, unfortunately, insists on remaining one of the noxious few.

Fellowship: Do you connect capital punishment with our huge military establishment, our commitment to nuclear weapons, and the revival of Star Wars and the like?

Farrell: The same inverted priorities that suggest that humane concerns are secondary to the need for killing power, the same jingoistic, hyper-macho attitudes that reduce innocent blood to "collateral damage" are at work in justifying the death penalty.

Fellowship: Are there particular mentors who have inspired you?

Farrell: I am inspired by the invincibility and irrepressibility of the human spirit that I see everywhere I look. I find it in Cesar Chavez, Rabbi Leonard Beerman, Joan Baez, Joe Giarratano, Marie Deans, and Margery Tabankin. I find it in the workers in the field, in my children, in all those who dare to love.

Fellowship: What gives you hope?

Farrell: People's fundamental decency and their unquenchable thirst for - and belief in - something better. Clarence Darrow once said, "There is in every man that divine spark that makes him reach upward for something higher and better than anything he has ever known." My belief in that divine spark, my experience of it in some of the most tragic places in the world, from El Salvador to Rwanda to Bosnia to Skid Row to Death Row America, provides what seems to be a never-ending supply of hope and inspiration.


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