Mike Farrell has traveled the globe to promote human rights. His travels have placed him in the company of torture victims in El Salvador and Yugoslavia, with a man who spent 18 years on Illinois’ death row for a murder he did not commit, and in a chapel in Rwanda, where he had to step carefully over and around the rotting bodies of people slaughtered in a genocidal attack. This is not the typical journey for a person who has achieved fame and fortune in Hollywood. Farrell, 65, is best known as the actor who played Dr. B.J. Hunnicutt on the TV series M*A*S*H. Earlier this month, Farrell took his human rights crusade to Durham, where he was the keynote speaker at the annual conference of People of Faith Against the Death Penalty.
Farrell, who is chairman of Human Rights Watch, has been a longtime opponent of the death penalty, a punishment he says is laden with racism and classism.
“It is only used against poor people,” he says. “I think it hurts us as a society to be executing people because it teaches people that killing people is OK. I think the death penalty makes no sense. First of all, I believe that ‘thou shalt not kill’ means thou shalt not kill.”
Among the more than 200 people at the all-day conference were several family members and friends of those on North Carolina’s death row.
Carey Campbell of Greensboro told the story of his brother Terrance, who was sentenced to death after refusing a plea agreement that would have given him a life sentence. During his brother’s trial, Campbell said the prosecuting attorney said terrible things about Terrance to persuade the jury to vote for death.
“I didn’t know who he was talking about,” Campbell said. “What did we miss? There was some monster growing in that room next to me, and I never knew?”
Campbell said he now spends a lot of his time advocating against the death penalty, hoping his brother will be spared.
Rose Clark of Kinston, who witnessed the 2002 execution of her brother, Ernest Basden, stood up and told Campbell that she made a promise to her brother to work to abolish the death penalty.
“I did watch ’em put my brother to death, and that’s the promise we made to him, to continue to fight the death penalty–this terrible thing,” she says.
With the possibility of a moratorium on executions being enacted next year by the General Assembly, Clark told Campbell to remain hopeful.
“You have a long way to go, but there’s hope,” she said.
Raleigh special education teacher Cissy McKissick told a heart-wrenching story of two men–Desmond Carter and Quentin Jones–whom she had visited on death row. Both were executed within eight months of each other in 2002 and 2003.
After initially writing to Carter, McKissick began to visit him, and soon they became friends, like a brother and a sister, she said.
“I didn’t expect it to be a big, big part of my life,” McKissick said. “This was somebody I really started caring about.”
Farrell said he is optimistic that the death penalty will be abolished in the United States. Fewer juries are opting to sentence people to death, he said. The overall number of death penalty sentences is dropping, and more and more innocent people are being released from death row.
“Largely, the thing that’s gotten the attention of the American people is the exoneration of innocent people,” he said.
One of those innocent people is Darryl Hunt, who sat on North Carolina’s death row for 19 years before being exonerated on Christmas Eve 2003. In a speech at the conference, Hunt said he is still having a hard time adjusting to life on the outside.
“Those 19 years are gone, but we’re fighting every day for people who are locked up on death row,” he said. “I believe only God has the right [to take a life]. Man doesn’t have that right.”
Indy writer Patrick O’Neill was among those honored at the Dec. 4 conference celebrating the 10th anniversary of People of Faith Against the Death Penalty. O’Neill and his wife, Mary Rider, are leaders of the Father Charlie Mulholland Catholic Worker House, which won the community service award for being “pillars of the abolition movement in North Carolina.” Also receiving awards were state Sen. Ellie Kinnaird of Carrboro, who received the Rev. Robert E. Seymour Award for her work for a moratorium on executions in North Carolina, and Durham’s Watts Street Baptist Church, which received the Faith in Action Award for setting a “shining example of prayer and action for restorative justice.”