Actors voice opposition to death penalty at UM

Via the Missoulian:

Two well-known actors were at the University of Montana on Wednesday asking citizens to encourage their state representatives to support abolishing the death penalty.

“Montana should take its place in history and be the second state to abolish the death penalty in modern history,” said Mike Farrell. New Jersey banned the punishment in 2007.

Farrell, best known for his role as Dr. B.J. Hunnicutt on the popular TV series “M*A*S*H,” and Academy Award-winner James Cromwell, who starred in movies such as “L.A. Confidential,” “Babe” and “The Green Mile,” spoke to a crowd of about 60 people at the University Center Theater about why the death penalty is – as they see it – inhumane, flawed and unjust.

Capital punishment is a timely issue in Montana. A bill to abolish the death penalty in exchange for life in prison without parole is gaining momentum at the 2009 Legislature.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Dave Wanzenried, D-Missoula, passed Montana’s Republican-controlled Senate last week. It’s the first time a Republican-controlled body has ever passed such a measure, said Rachel Carroll of the Montana Abolition Coalition, which sponsored Wednesday’s event.

It was no coincidence that the rally coincided with the pending legislation, Carroll said. Not all lawmakers from western Montana support abolishing the death penalty, she said.

The coalition hoped the rally would inspire Missoula residents and activists to get involved, and contact their representatives. Farrell and Cromwell spoke in Helena on Tuesday.

Fourteen states don’t impose the death penalty. New Jersey was the first state to do so in recent years, Farrell said. In Montana, he said, the achievement would be even more profound, considering the state’s location in the West and the perception of Wild West ethics here.

Farrell, who chairs the the California nonprofit group Death Penalty Focus, has advocated against capital punishment for decades. His involvement with a Salvation Army-sponsored halfway house, where drug addicts, alcoholics and criminals came for rehabilitation, helped shape his perception toward the criminally accused.

Farrell believes it’s possible for most of these individuals, many of whom suffer from mental illness, to be rehabilitated into productive members of society.

“I’ve seen these people express the most profound human grace,” he said. “Sick people need to be treated, not exterminated.”

Cromwell is relatively new to the cause, but his interest in political change stretches back to the 1960s, when he was a member of the Black Panthers, a politically radical organization.

Of the nearly 200 countries in the world, only 50 or 60 still use the death penalty. They include places such as Iran, China, Iraq and Saudi Arabia, Farrell said.

“It’s not good company to be in,” he said.

The death penalty does not deter criminals from committing horrific crimes and it does not cost less than keeping a prisoner jailed for life, Farrell said.

Both are common arguments used in support of the death penalty. However, Texas executes the most death-row inmates each year and has one of the highest crime rates in the country, he said.

Also, studies have shown that because of the number of court appeals granted to death row inmates, it costs maybe twice as much to execute someone than to keep them in jail for life, he said.

Often, politicians won’t speak out against the death penalty because it’s easy for critics to accuse them of being soft on crime.

“There’s nothing soft about putting someone in prison for the rest of their lives,” Farrell said.

Senate Bill 236, to abolish the death penalty, is scheduled for a public hearing in Helena before the House Judiciary Committee on March 25.

Reporter Chelsi Moy can be reached at 523-5260 or at chelsi.moy@missoulian.com.