Canada ‘more powerful than it understands’: M*A*S*H star

October 27, 2011

Tracey Tyler, Legal Affairs Reporter
from The Toronto Star 

M*A*S*H star and social justice crusader Mike Farrell will be in Toronto Friday for a panel discussion on the death penalty, a fundraiser hosted by the Association in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted.

We caught up with the 72-year-old actor, president of Death Penalty Focus as he changed planes at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport:

Q. Where does your social activism come from?

 A. That’s a good question. I guess what I discovered over time is that, as a child, I lived in fear. My father was a very volcanic man whose behaviour was not unusual for men at the time, but it scared the hell out of me. And he made me very much aware and, as I later discovered, made me very angry about oppression and injustice by powerful people against people who are less powerful.

He wasn’t an abusive man in the sense we know of that today. But he was a two-fisted Irishman who drank a lot.

Q. There’s very little chance the death penalty will return to Canada, given a ruling by the Supreme Court of Canada 11 years ago finding it to be unconstitutional. Why are you coming here for a conference on this subject? Surely the U.S. criminal justice system isn’t influenced by the views Canadians may hold on capital punishment.

A. I go all over the world talking about the death penalty and I came in contact with the Association in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted through (Rubin) Hurricane Carter (the ex-boxer and now Toronto resident wrongly convicted of a 1966 triple murder in New Jersey).

I think the international community, of which Canada is certainly a part, is very powerful, much more powerful than it understands. And we’re starting to see that today. Many of our (U.S.) Supreme Court justices are now looking at international law and the actions of different countries and are beginning to perceive the United States as an outlier in certain areas. And I think this is all very beneficial to us who are trying to end the death penalty, not just in the United States, but worldwide.

Q. The Troy Davis case attracted a lot of international attention recently. (Davis, 42, was executed last month by the state of Georgia for the 1989 murder of an off-duty police officer. What disturbed you most about that prosecution?

A. I was in touch with Troy over the years and was very much aware of the need for a new trial. There were (recantations) by seven of nine prosecutorial witnesses and there was no forensic evidence linking him to the crime. It is a case where the injustice leapt out to the degree that it created the international furor that it did. And, as even Troy, I think, began to understand, it was going to have an impact on the issue at large. And as we all are, I’m outraged at the state of Georgia for what they did.

Q. What can you tell us about the initiative that’s underway in California to include abolition of the death penalty as a ballot question in the 2012 U.S. election?

A. My organization is part of a coalition of groups that is intending to put it on the ballot in 2012 with the hope, desire and intention that we end the use of the death penalty in California. California is a bellwether state in a lot of regards, and our hope is it will be a major step toward removing the death penalty from the books in the United States.

Q. It’s been almost 30 years since M*A*S*H went off the air. What do you think would have happened to your character (Captain B.J. Hunnicut) over that time?

A. Ha-hah! Oh, I think B.J. would have gone home to Mill Valley (Calif.) to Peg and Erin and set up a (medical) practice and lived a wonderful, productive but low-key life.

Q. What did you like about that character and how was he not like you?

A. There wasn’t anything I didn’t like about the character. I thought he was wonderful and had a wonderful time playing him. I’m a little rougher around the edges than he is.

Q. What other projects are you working on now?

A. Most of the focus is on human rights in general, the death penalty being a human rights issue. I’m also very concerned and maybe, soon, doing a play concerned with global warming and the environmental challenges we face. People in Canada might not like this, but I’m very much opposed to the (Keystone XL) pipeline that is being proposed through the United States from the tar sands of Alberta, (a plan by Calgary-based TransCanada for transporting oil to the gulf coast). I understand Bob Redford just did something about that on the web.

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