‘M*A*S*H’ actor keynotes anti-death penalty event


“Today, a man originally on death row was supposed to be freed,” actor and activist Mike Farrell said before a meeting of death penalty opponents.

Farrell was in the area Friday to address the Oregonians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty at the group’s annual meeting and banquet.

The man he was talking about, Albert Woodfox, 68, is the last remaining member of the Angola 3 to still be incarcerated. The former Black Panther has been held on death row, and in solitary confinement, for 43 years. Earlier this week, a U.S. district court judge ordered that Woodfox be released and declared that the State of Louisiana cannot try him a third time. However, Louisiana Attorney General Buddy Caldwell appealed that decision, causing Woodfox to remain in custody past his anticipated Friday release date.

“That is simply unjust,” Farrell said. “Woodfox is one dramatic example of what’s wrong with our criminal justice system.”

Farrell spoke at the event, held at the Keizer Civic Center, about many issues surrounding the topic of capital punishment and the American prison system at large.

Also speaking at the meeting were fellow abolition activists Danielle Fulfs, program director of the Washington Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, and Becky O’Neil McBrayer, program manager at St. Andre Bessette Church in downtown Portland.

Best known for his role as Capt. B.J. Hunnicutt on the classic TV series “M*A*S*H” and as Dr. Jim Hansen in the series “Providence,” Farrell has been president of Death Penalty Focus in California since 1994 and is a frequent speaker and writer about the injustices of capital punishment.

Farrell first became involved in death penalty work in the mid-1970s. In 1972, the death penalty was abolished nationally. It was reinstated in 1976, leading abolition activists to believe there would soon be a “bloodbath in our country.” Farrell said he felt he needed to take action.

“It’s inexcusable that we continue it,” he said.

Farrell described the death penalty as the lid to a garbage can. “Once it is removed, the country will have to face the stench that is our criminal justice system,” he said.

With the United States as one of the top-five executioners in the world, and many states spending more on prisons than on schools, there was much for death penalty abolitionists and criminal justice reform activists to talk about Friday night.

“We are trailing the rest of the world when others, even underdeveloped nations, have given it (the death penalty) up,” Farrell said.

Farrell said the death penalty doesn’t actually serve the U.S. as people might think it does. It is incredibly expensive, he said, costing three to seven times more than life-without-parole cases cost. But he listed other reasons for opposing it: Innocent people are executed; the death penalty has been shown statistically not to deter crime; it is racist in application; and it specifically targets the poor.

Farrell says the reason it is still happening is political cowardice.

“(Politicians) know that it fails, and they have been browbeaten to say and show that they are ‘tough on crime,’ so they are afraid to end it,” he said.

However, Farrell said, this is starting to change, and more and more people are standing up against it.

“We don’t need to be tough on crime, we need to be smart on crime,” he said.

Farrell allowed that there are “certainly good people who support” the death penalty, and he referred to an often-cited interpretation of the Bible’s “an eye for an eye.”

“This reading of the Bible, meant to show balance, has, in my opinion, been misread,” he said. “We don’t rape rapists, burn down the homes of arsonists and steal from thieves.”

npate@StatesmanJournal.com or (503) 399-6745 or follow on Twitter @Nataliempate


Published by Natalie Pate

Natalie Pate is a freelance journalist and author based in Salem, Oregon. She wrote about education for more than seven years at the Statesman Journal and now covers education and other topics throughout the Pacific Northwest. She is originally from Colorado and earned her B.A. in Politics and French from Willamette University.

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