Mike Farrell and the Death Penalty:

"I believe that no one should be executed, guilty or innocent. There are appropriate sanctions that protect society and punish wrongdoers without forcing us to stoop to the level of the least among us at his or her worst moment."

Being a life-long opponent of the death penalty, Mike Farrell has debated and spoken about this issue on many occasions across the country.

Clearly not everyone shares his views on the death penalty. Some believe it is appropriate under certain circumstances for the state to take a life. Those who hold to that view, though, "must not only examine the issue on an abstract moral or philosophical plane, but should look carefully at the reality of what a death penalty system truly means in a society such as ours - what it does, who it impacts, who it serves - and what our moral obligation is with regard to the mistakes it makes."

An alternative to the death penalty that Farrell believes appropriate is Life Imprisonment Without the Possibility of Parole. This means exactly what it says. Life imprisonment without ever having the chance to get out.

"A life sentence without parole protects public safety while sparing us the barbarity of killing our own. It teaches our children that violence will be punished, but not by emulating the violent. This seems eminently more consistent with American ideals than continuing to share the killing stage with some of the world's worst human rights violators."

Farrell's views on the death penalty and prison reform are not something that developed in the last couple of years. In the late '60s two friends encouraged Mike to get involved with a Salvation Army funded rehabilitation program. The place was a haven to anyone who wanted to come in, but had been established to help drug addicts, alcoholics and those who were social misfits or outcasts because of various kinds of problems that resulted in them acting out in socially unacceptable ways. For Farrell it was "a wonderful eye-opening, mind-opening, heart-opening experience," something he'll never forget. It taught him a lot and since he got so much love and support and warmth from these people ("whores, thieves, junkies, drunks and sexual deviates that society teaches us to think of as dispensable"), Mike determined to use the lessons they taught him to do what he could to change the way people think about others - particularly about "the least among us."

Since that time, he has been an advocate of penal reform and prisoner's rights, and has worked with and been a supporter of organizations such as "The Fortune Society" in New York; "P.O.R.T." in Minneapolis and "The Delancey Street Foundation" in San Francisco and Los Angeles.

In the late '70s he became actively involved with the "Southern Coalition on Jails and Prisons", appearing at various functions on its behalf. Under the aegis of the SCJP and Reverend Joe Ingle he first visited a death row at Tennessee State Prison during this period. This experience made a huge impression on him.

Having been to prisons with the rehabilitation program, he knew a little bit about the kinds of people he'd meet there, but "all the lore, the horror stories about slobbering lunatics and deranged, fanged creatures," had made him a bit nervous. Yet, what he found on death row was what you'd find anywhere. The people he met were "a cross section of humanity. All of them had come from poverty. Many were black. Some were very tough. But they were unanimous in their appreciation" for him having come. They were "clearly very lonely and very needy, in an emotional sense. There was a sense of embarrassment about some of them, as though they were ashamed to be seen in that circumstance."

Farrell was very "touched by their human-ness, moved by the awareness that they were no different from you and me. They had done terrible things of course, but that wasn't the sum total of their existence. They had children and mothers and fathers, wives, brothers and sisters. They felt things and hoped for things and wondered about things just as we do. They only difference was that they were living in cages and knew they'd never get out of them until the day they were marched to the electric chair."

Trying to create a better understanding about the cruelty and inconsistency of the death penalty, Mike is a regular lecturer to interested audiences across the US. In his opinion, the best approach to reach that better understanding is "first through the people, then the politicians. Although politicians are certainly influential, they are also mistrusted more and more. Politicians in America are notorious cowards and, for the most part, won't go out on a limb."

Farrell is always "thrilled" when someone comes up and tells him he's changed his/her mind, but often he doesn't know the result of his speeches. He's "just glad to have the opportunity to talk to people who really have no personal experience of it" in the hope that this "will at least give them pause in their support for death." His strategies in answering questions about, for example the costs of the death penalty are simple: "Just explain the facts. The facts are on our side. It's much cheaper to keep people in prison for life than to go through the entire process and kill."

Farrell's activities in the anti death penalty movement vary from organizing and supporting campaigns to save specific individuals, educating the public through radio and television interviews and debates, speaking, writing essays and newspaper editorials, meeting with state governors and/or government officials when appropriate, coordinating and organizing meetings and maintaining communication with other activists and organizations.

When Mike gets involved in a death penalty case he finds it most important to "get as much information as you can, not only about the case itself but about the individual and his or her family, the victim's family, the governor, the political situation of the state, etc. Then you can make the best presentation you can, hopefully backed up by the testimony of experts."

Mike Farrell is active in Death Penalty Focus, a non-profit organization dedicated to the abolition of capital punishment through "grassroots organizing, research, and the dissemination of information about the death penalty and its alternatives." In 1992 Mike was asked to accept an appointment to the Board of Directors of this organization and was elected its President in the fall of 1994.

Other abolition organizations Farrells is involved with or supports are:

  • "The National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty" where he was a member of the Board of Directors.
  • Committee to Save Mumia Abu-Jamal, which he co-chaired with Ossie Davies from 1994 to 2002.
  • ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union), for its active and effective opposition to the death penalty.
  • Human Rights Watch, where he was co-Chair of the California Committee from 1994 to 2004.

The list of Farrell's activities in the anti death penalty movement is quite extensive. Below you'll find a review of some of those activities.

In the '80s Farrell joined Marie Deans of the "Virginia Coalition on Jails and Prisons" to help with the case of Joe Giarratano, a Virginia inmate under sentence of death. The ensuing campaign, orchestrated by Ms Deans, took on international proportions and resulted in Governor Douglas Wilder's commutation of Giarratano's sentence hours before his scheduled execution. Farrell remains involved in the Giarratano case, attempting to secure a new trial, and was a founding board member of an inmate-run "Alternatives to Violence" program created by Giarratano.

In 1992 Mike was involved in the creation of a video-taped clemency packet urging Gov. Pete Wilson to intervene, because of evidence of fetal alcohol victimization, child abuse and brain damage, on behalf of Robert Alton Harris, then scheduled to be executed in California. Subsequent to the release of the videotape, he did press, spoke publicly and debated the issues pertinent to Harris' case up until the time of execution.

In Feb 1993, at the invitation of members of the Iowa State Legislature, Farrell addressed an extraordinary session of that body on the question of reinstating the death penalty. Due to an outpouring of such opposition, the move to reinstate was subsequently defeated.

In Feb. 1995 Mike returned to Iowa, this time at the invitation of Amnesty International and Iowans Against the Death Penalty, to meet with media representatives and a state senator as well, as to address a group at Iowa State University at a time when the legislature was again considering reinstatement of the death penalty. The measure once again went down to defeat.

In April 1995 Farrell organized a campaign among people in the Hollywood community with interests in Montana to encourage Gov. Racicot to grant clemency to Duncan McKenzie, who was scheduled to be the first person executed in that state in 52 years. The campaign was unsuccessful and McKenzie was killed.

In early May 1995, Mike addressed the "Resource Center for Non-Violence" in Santa Cruz, CA on the subject and at the end of the month spoke at the 75th anniversary of the founding of the ACLU in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Through the summer months of 1995, as the execution date of Mumia Abu-Jamal drew closer and the outcry against the killing grew to international proportions, Farrell was drawn into more involvement with this case, responding to a campaign orchestrated by the Pennsylvania Fraternal Order of Police, speaking and debating on radio and television across the country and writing on it until a stay of execution eased the pressure somewhat.

During those same months, Mike helped coordinate a campaign for a stay of execution for Joe Spanziano in Florida. In spite of Gov. Chiles apparent intention to go forward with the execution on the basis of secret testimony from secret witnesses, the Florida Supreme Court issued a stay of execution on Sept. 11th, then days before Spaziano was to die. Spaziona's conviction was overturned in 1999 and he is off death row today.

In Jan 1996 Farrell drafted an appeal to Gov. Edgar of Illinois to commute the death sentence of Guinevere Garcia, an inmate who had discontinued her appeals and 'volunteered' to be executed. Citing her history of victimization, the appeal garnered the support of dozens of legal experts, celebrities and concerned professionals. Gov. Edgar commuted the death sentence only hours before it was to be carried out.

On Jan. 25 1996, Mike appeared as an on-line commentator for the ACLU's coverage of the execution by firing squad of John Albert Taylor, another 'volunteer', in Utah. [see AOL transcript]

Feb. 1996 saw interviews leading up to the vigil at San Quentin protesting the execution of William Bonin. Later that year Farrell chaired the successful Death Penalty Focus awards dinner, which featured presentations of awards for their contribution to the fight against the death penalty to actor/director Kiefer Sutherland, former death row inmate Rubin Carter and Gov. Mario Cuomo.

In May he traveled to San Quentin to speak and stand vigil against the execution of Keith Daniel Williams, a mentally ill man, in California. The remainder of the year included a number of interviews and speeches on the subject; the highlight being a debate before the Beverly Hills Bar Association in which he represented DPF.

In Feb. and March 1997 he was featured "presenter" for two weeks for a nationwide "on-line" service for attorneys, called Counsel Connect. In this context he debated and discussed state killing intensely with opponents, ardent advocated and victim's family members across the country.

In May and June, due to the heightened interest in the subject from the Timothy McVeigh trial, Mike appeared as "the opposing voice" on a number of radio and television shows, some as a result of his letter to the editer in USA Today.

July and August of the year were filled with developments regarding the impending California execution of Thomas Thompson, whose likely innocence of the charges for which he was to be killed had been determined in federal court and overturned by a three-judge panel of the higher, 9th Circuit Court. Despite some dramatic last-minute maneuvers on the part of the Governor and the Attorney General, the US Supreme Court agreed to put the case on its calendar for 1998, thus staying the execution at least until that time. Sadly Thompson was executed in July of 1998.

In Sept. 1997 Farrell helped coordinate the mission of Bacre Waly N'Diaye, the UN Special Rapporteur for Extrajudicial, Summary and Arbitrary Executions, to the US. At the end of his visit, N'Diaye was presented to a large gathering of interested citizens in the Farrell home. N'Diaye's report can be read at: "Mission to the United States of America."

In Sept. and Oct. Mike drafted and circulated a petition asking Gov. Carnahan of Missouri to intercede in the scheduled execution of Alan Bannister. Despite an international effort on Bannister's behalf, he was executed on Oct. 22, 1997.

In Jan. 1998 Mike wrote a guest editorial column for the LA Times, calling for the Justice Department to rething its decision to go for the death penalty in the Unabomber case. The Justice Department subsequently decided to grant Ted Kaczynski a life term without parole in return for a guilty plea.

On Feb. 3rd 1998, Farrell debated former Texas Attorney General Mattox on a special MSNBC report on the execution of Karla Faye Tucker and later took part in a three-way radio debate on the same subject wiht a representative of a Texas-based "victim's rights" organization and the director of an organization of Evangelical Christians.

In April he wrote another opinion piece for the Los Angeles Times, this one in opposition to the planned execution in California of Horace Kelly, a mentally damaged man.

On June 3rd he chaired Death Penalty Focus' 10th Anniversary Awards Banquet, which featured awards to California State Senate President Pro Tem John L. Burton, the American Bar Association, entertainer Steve Allen and Bud Welch, an Oklahoman whose daughter was killed in the infamous bombing of the Murrah Federal Building.

In mid-June, at the invitation of the Inter-American Court on Human Rights, Mike flew to San Jose, Costa Rica, to testify in support of an amicus brief submitted by Death Penalty Focus in a dispute between Mexico and the United States on the issue of consular notification in death penalty cases when the defendant is an extranational.

13 - 15 November 1998; Mike attended the "National Conference on Wrongful Convictions and the Death Penalty" as one of the speakers. This Conference was hosted by Northwestern University School of Law in Chicago.

Through the spring of 1999 Mike was involved with the effort to save the life of Manuel "Manny" Babbitt, a mentally damaged Marine veteran of the Vietnam War. He arranged for the making of a video to be presented to California's Governor Gray Davis which presented expert psychiatric opinion on Babbitt's post-traumatic stress disorder and the part it played in the crime. The governor was indifferent to these facts and Babbitt was killed.

In April of 1999 Mike inspected the Oklahoma State Prison's "Super Max" facility, H-Unit, as part of a delegation from Human Rights Watch, interviewing death row inmates and others, and touring the facility in preparation for a HRW report on Super-Max conditions in the US.

The same month he spoke at an event for Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, in Charlottesville, VA. The event honored Marie Deans, one of the founders of Murder Victims' Families for Reconciliation and a long-time laborer in the abolitionist fields, and Jerry Zerkin, lawyer to Joe Giarratano.

In June 1999 he represented DPF at a special death penalty conference in Chicago in which individual experts and representatives from most of the major organizations dealing with the issue met, compared notes and began working on a national strategy to bring an end to the practice.

On August 4th 1999 Mike spoke on two death penalty penals at the annual Rainbow/PUSH Conference in Chicago. On the 28th of that month he addressed the annual meeting of the ACLU in Louisville, KY, again speaking on the death penalty and human rights.

On Sept. 11th he took part in an event calling attention to the case of Mumia Abu-Jamal. On the 15th he testified, again in Chicago, before the State of Illinois' Legislative Task Force on the Death Penalty.

On Nov. 4th, Farrell addressed the International Council on Child Abuse and Neglect on the issue of the juvenile death penalty. On the 11th he spoke to the Oklahoma City Defense Bar Association.

The rest if 1999 and first half of 2000 included the now-usual schedule of speaking engagements, radio and television interviews and debates, including a second appearance on ABC TV's "Politically Incorrect", two appearances on "Rivera Live", one on "Larry King" regarding the execution of Gary Graham, two editorials printed in the Los Angeles Dialy Journal and a group of commentaries on-line on the now-defunct NewsBoom.com.

In July, August and September of 2000 Mike worked with the federal defense team attempting to stop the execution of Juan Raul Garza, scheduled to be the first federal prisoner executed since 1963. This campaign, coupled with many other considerations, contributed to the President's decision to postpone the execution.

Farrell was subsequently involved in the planning and development of an expanded campaign for a moratorium on all federal executions, an effort that continued through the end of the Clinton presidency, with a focus on racial and geographic disparities in the application of the federal death penalty. The intention of the campaign was to move the president to stop all federal executions at least until the questions of inequity could be seriously studied and an appropriate resolution achieved. The effort had a significant impact through the media and was an important educational tool, but ultimately failed to move President Clinton beyond his one actions, the further delay of the execution of Juan Raul Garza.

In 2001 Mike has continued to work with the efoort for a federal moratorium in thh face of the new Bush Administration's hard-line policies on the issue.

In May he presided over DPF's 2001 Awards Dinner in which Cardinal Archbishop Roger Mahony of the Los Angeles Archdiocese of the Catholic Church was presented the Abolitionist of the Year Award. At the same event awards were also presented to the creator and cast of the television show "The West Wing", for their powerful episode on the death penalty and to Murder Victim's Families for Reconciliation, a national victim's organization working to end the death penalty. In addition, Farrell presented the Acts of Courage Award to Governor George Ryan of Illinois for instituting a moratorium on capital punishment in his state.

Mike has continued to speak, write and organize against capital punishment throughout the year and is now participating in the launch of a campaign to establish a moratorium on the death penalty in California.

In the spring of 2002, in addition to the usual line-up of events, Mike was invited to speak to a national conference on the death penalty at DePaul University in Chicago; to a second conference in Tucson, AZ; to the Public Policy Forum at Southern Illinois University; to Dispute Resolution Services in Albuquerque, NM; and to the California Public Defenders Association in Los Angeles.

In April he chaired a DPF dinner honoring civil rights hero Rev. Jim Lawson, actor Danny Glover, philanthropist Stanley K. Sheinbaum and author Studs Terkel, and in July he was invited to moderate a panel on the international implications of America's continuing use of the death penalty at a conference in Geneva, Switzerland, hosted by the Duke University Law School.

Late in the year he helped host a second Conference on Wrongful Convictions in Chicago at Northwestern University's Law School and appeared with Danny Glover, Richard Dreyfuss and the New York cast in a special presentation of "The Exonerated" for Governor George Ryan and his staff and an audience filled with the exonerated and their families.

In January of 2003 Mike was present, at Governor Ryan's invitation, when the Governor announced the commutation of 167 death row inmates to life in prison, emptying Illinois' death row.

In the spring of 2003 he once again hosted the Death Penalty Focus dinner, this time honoring Mexico's President Vicente Fox, Illinois' Governor George Ryan (for the second time), Dr. Hunter "Patch" Adams, Ramona Ripston of the ACLU and Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen, authors of "The Exonerated".

Through the year, speaking ran the gamut from addressing business and service organizations such as The Jonathan Club and the Beverly Hills Rotary CLub to and appearance on "The O'Reilly Factor", debating the highly-charged case of Mumia Abu Jamal with the host and Maureen Faulkner, widow of the slain policeman Daniel Faulkner.

Beyond regular speaking and debating engagements, 2004 continued the pace. In January and February he was deeply involved in the ultimately successful campaign to stay the scheduled execution of Kevin Cooper, an inmate on CA's death row; working with the defense team, he debated the case on radio and television, appeared at press conferences and communicated directly with Governor Schwarzenegger and Attorney General Lockyer.

In April, Mike again hosted the Death Penalty Focus dinner, this year honoring former First Lady Rosalynn Carter, the legendary Harry Belafonte, award-winning director Robert Wise, Bishop Gabino Zavala and community activist Aqeela Sherrills.

In May he delivered the keynote address at the Clarence Darrow Defense College of the University of Michigan's Law School. That same month he gave the keynote address, along with Sister Helen Prejean, to the graduating class of Notre Dame de Namur University in Belmont, CA, and was presented with teh honorary degree, Doctor of Public Service.

In September he delivered the keynote address at Life Over Death XXIII, the annual conference of the Florida Public Defender Association in Fort Lauderdale.

In October he represented DPF in Montreal, Canada, at the Second World Congress Against the Death Penalty, chairing a panel on capital punishment in the United States.

In December Farrell was presented the Donald Wright Award for "Special Contributions to the Criminal Justice System" by California Attorneys for Criminal Justice. In the 28 years the award has been given Mike Farrell is the second person to receive it who is neither an attorney or a judge.

Also in December Mike began to coordinate, with DPF, a campaign to stop the execution scheduled for mid-January in California of Donald Beardslee, a brain-damaged man, who was sadly executed in January 2005.



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