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Actor Mike Farrell sees death penalty as nation's 'failure'

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TRIBUNE PHOTO: PETER WONG - M*A*S*H actor Mike Farrell brought his anti-death penalty message to Oregon Friday. Activist Farrell is head of Death Penalty Focus in San Francisco.Although best known for his role on the television series “M*A*S*H,” Mike Farrell also has a longer history as an activist for human rights and against the death penalty.

He came to Oregon to talk about those passions with opponents of the state’s death penalty.

“We are doing great harm to ourselves,” Farrell said in an interview before he spoke at the annual dinner of Oregonians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.

“We put ourselves in partnership with people we despise. We claim that the Chinese, the Saudis and the Iranians are doing wrong in what they are doing with human rights, and yet we continue to do the same thing.

“It sets us up for a great fall. I love this country and I do not want to see it fail that way.”

Farrell said that while more than 100 nations have abolished the death penalty or do not use it, the United States is among the 60 that still do. Among them are China, Iran, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, which with the United States accounted for 88 percent of all executions last year, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

Farrell is the president of Death Penalty Focus, based in San Francisco. His wife, Shelley Fabares, is on its advisory board.

Origins of activism

Near the end of his eight seasons on “M*A*S*H,” in which he played Korean War-era Army surgeon B.J. Hunnicutt, Farrell was asked by Tennessee minister Joe Ingle to lend his voice against the death penalty.

A U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1976 cleared the way for states to resume executions — Gary Gilmore in Utah was the first in 1977 — under specified conditions. Ingle said he feared an onslaught of executions.

“He said he needed help from somebody who had the possibility of getting press attention because of the issue’s visibility – and I qualified,” Farrell said.

Farrell had already been active in human rights advocacy while he was a member of the “M*A*S*H” cast from 1975 to 1983. He joined the show in its fourth season.

He had spoken out against human rights abuses in Central America, where the United States supplied military aid, and in Southeast Asia. He also traveled to those areas.

“There are certain things I believe, and you run into issues,” he said. “When they come up and I feel I can be effective in dealing with them, I try to do it.”

Farrell, who’s 76, interweaved descriptions of his activism with his acting career in a 2007 autobiography, “Just Call Me Mike.”

“When I first got involved, our position (against the death penalty) was a lonely one,” he said. “It was the tough-on-crime years. It was hard to get a crows, hard to get anyone who would talk with you.”

He identified two important boosts to the cause. One was the 1995 movie “Dead Man Walking,” based on the book by Sister Helen Prejean. Susan Sarandon won an Academy Award for her portrayal. The other was a gathering of three dozen death-penalty exonerees coinciding with the 1999 opening of the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University law school in Chicago.

“As a result, people began to become much more aware of problems within the system,” he said.

A long time coming

Farrell said change takes persistence and patience.

Back in 1994, he spoke at a news conference in Lincoln, Neb., on behalf of Harold “Wili” Otey, who was executed for a 1977 murder Otey said he did not commit. But recently, Nebraska’s one-chamber Legislature abolished the death penalty by overriding the governor’s veto, although its supporters hope to compel a statewide referendum.

Farrell said one of Nebraska’s death penalty’s foes, then and now, is Ernie Chambers, a black state senator from Omaha.

“As Ernie’s effort has demonstrated, you stay at it. Not only do people’s minds change, circumstances change,” he said.

Nebraska became the 19th state to do away with the death penalty.

Farrell said the issue transcends partisan, ideological or even moral divides. He said an increasing number, notably political and religious conservatives, see it as unworkable and expensive compared with the alternative of life in prison without parole.

“It is counterintuitive and hard for people to grasp, but it’s true in every state,” he said. “So as these cases attract people’s attention, they become more open to this discussion.”

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Kitzhaber's anti-death penalty fight continues

Oregon remains among the 31 states with a death penalty, although the most recent executions were in 1996 and 1997, when two inmates waived their appeals. The last involuntary execution was in 1962.

According to the Department of Corrections, 34 men and one woman were on Oregon’s death row as of Feb. 15. All are convicted of aggravated murder, the only crime punishable by death.

Then-Gov. John Kitzhaber issued a temporary reprieve on a 2011 execution order for Gary Haugen. Although Haugen’s reprieve was linked to Kitzhaber’s tenure, Gov. Kate Brown renewed it upon after Kitzhaber resigned Feb. 18.

Like Kitzhaber, Brown has said Oregon should renew a discussion of the death penalty, but she hasn’t proposed any specifics. Kitzhaber proposed a repeal in 2013, but lawmakers let it die after a hearing, so it never reached the ballot.

Voters have repealed and reinstated the death penalty several times since the state assumed responsibility for executions in 1903. The most recent reinstatement dates to 1984, when voters approved a pair of initiatives.

One of the nation’s leading advocates of the death penalty is Josh Marquis, Clatsop County district attorney for more than 20 years.

But the three living former chief justices of the Oregon Supreme Court — Edwin Peterson, Wallace Carson and Paul De Muniz — have declared themselves opposed to it.