Voices: Mike Farrell

He has devoted his life to ending the death penalty. After heading the campaign for Proposition 62, Mike Farrell returned this month to Death Penalty Focus, where he has served as president for almost 30 years. He talks about the campaign, its defeat, and where he thinks we should go from here.

Mike Farrell woke up on November 9 down but not out. He had watched Proposition 62, the Justice That Works Act of 2016, which would have repealed the death penalty and replaced it with a sentence of life without parole, go down in defeat in California the day before, and said, “We just have to work harder.”

Farrell, who took a leave as president of Death Penalty Focus to run the Prop 62 campaign, and returned this month, said he’s realistic about the setback to the abolitionist movement, but not pessimistic about the future possibility of repeal.

“Obviously, this was not a good sign. We’ve got a long road ahead of us. It means we have to start over, we haven’t reached enough people yet,” he says.

Prop 62 lost by a margin of 53.1 percent to 46.8 percent. It was a stinging defeat, one made worse by the slim passage of a competing measure, Proposition 66, which backers say will speed up the capital punishment process, but is on shaky constitutional ground. Farrell says the support for 66 indicates to him that people “are clinging to this idea that they’ve been sold that this is a right and proper procedure under certain circumstances. Well, we used to cling to the idea that slavery worked, that slavery had a purpose, that it was beneficial to society, before we got rid of it. And look at the incredible time it took to recognize the damage that we did, and are still doing, by implying that black people are inferior in some way.”

Like slavery, Farrell believes executing prisoners is a “barbaric process that inflicts damage on our society.” He points to a recent poll conducted by the International Committee of the Red Cross that found that close to 50 percent of Americans believe it is acceptable to torture enemy combatants, with just 30 percent opposed to the practice. “Capital punishment is the germ that infects our understanding of our own value, and tells us that under certain circumstances it’s okay to take a life. And when you determine that society has the right to execute incarcerated, incapacitated human beings incapable of doing harm to anyone else, you are stepping over a line, a moral bottom line, which brutalizes us.”

Farrell is a well-known actor. He played B.J. Hunnicutt on the TV series MASH, and has had a long and successful career. But it has never kept him from his life’s work: to see the death penalty in the U.S. abolished. He is tireless in his commitment, traveling the country, appearing on television and radio, writing op-eds, giving speeches, all in a lifelong quest to make this country a more humane, more just, more merciful society.

“It’s exhausting sometimes. It’s dispiriting sometimes. I cautioned myself during the campaign to not lean into the idea that we were really going to win. But I thought, we may win, and if we do, people will feel differently about themselves, and this state. And then, we lost, and damn, that hurt.”

So after 35 years, and this most recent loss, it would be understandable if he were to step back, rest, let someone else pick up the baton. But he says he can’t. “I’ve seen too much over so many years, seen it intimately, and I’m unfortunately personally aware of the pain and the damage that this awful process inflicts on people,” he says. “We have to move forward, continue to insist that there is a better way and there is a benefit to all of us in choosing this better path.”

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