When M*A*S*H* came to town


Okay.  It wasn’t the entire cast, Hawkeye, Radar, Hot Lips, Major Burns and Col. Potter.   But B.J. Hunnicut showed up.  For me, it was enough to have the actor/activist Mike Farrell make an appearance, ably representing the entire cast of the 4077.  It was my favorite TV show.

I met Mike and heard him speak on the death penalty at Beacon Heights Church of the Brethren, a member of one of the three historic peace churches.

When he arrived, he was still wearing in navy topcoat, his wavy hair turned mostly white since his earlier days in the popular TV series.  Yet he’s as handsome as that young, war-weary captain, with a friendly, disarming manner.   He seemed eager on this bitter cold morning to get on with the session.

The church gradually filled, with many faces I recognized from my visits over the years and of other friends I came to know during my time writing editorials, dozens against the death penalty.

Ellen Eggers, a California death penalty attorney originally from Fort Wayne, led the speakers.  She told a sad, even tragic story.  Lots of people don’t know that over two thirds of the countries have abolished the death penalty.   But that fits with how we treat all offenders, from the small-time drug dealers to murderers.  In face, we now lock up more people than any country in the world, even China which has four times the U.S. population.

Such punishment hasn’t made us safer, when we’re compared to other democracies.   In fact, as Eggers pointed out, the death penalty is an illusion.  It doesn’t deter murder.  There’s plenty of research on that.  And it doesn’t bring healing to the victims’ survivors.  That’s been my own observation.

Because of the lengthy appeals, and the cost of housing a capital offender, the death penalty costs the taxpayer far more than giving the person a life sentence.   Death row is not bargain:  A regular cell can run as high as $50,000 a year.  The solitary cell on death row  can cost more than $90,000.  Even conservative Indiana’s attorney general, Greg Zoeller, has challenged lawmakers here to weigh the value of executions in light of the cost.  Nationwide, we have 3,000 people in those cells today.   About half, it’s estimated, are mentally ill.   Which was true of every case I wrote about.

Rachel Gross followed Eggers.  A long-time friend from North Manchester, Rachel told stories of her network of people who write letters and send cards to death row inmates.    Some of these letter-writers have visited with the offenders, offering friendship and human contact with a person not part of the criminal justice machine.

Mike Farrell knows his message backwards and forwards, no need for notes or a script.  I thought it was noteworthy that he encouraged death penalty abolitionists not to become self-righteous.  I’ve probably been guilty of that myself.  But to the substance of the issue, citing Justice John Paul Stevens’ recent article, Mike argued that an execution can’t be done constitutionally.

It’s the poor, the minority defendant who is the most likely to receive a death sentence.  As one study of Georgia cases showed, a black defendant is 11 times more likely than a white defendant to get the death penalty. And it’s used disproportionately throughout the country. Several states don’t even have the death penalty on the books.  Most states that do have a higher capital crime rate.

When it’s invoked, the sentence is carried out freakishly, like being struck by lightening.  I imagine Mike, given his role in M*A*S*H*, must often have thought that such punishment is  about as senseless and arbitrary as the battle deaths in Korea.

But he suggested a constructive approach for abolitionists to defenders of the death penalty.  Rather than argue that killing somebody already locked up in a cage is immoral, show how there’s no way that death penalty can be administered fairly.  Impossible, which is exactly where Justice Stevens finished his long tenure on the high court.

Moreover, Mike concluded, such an extreme, inhumane punishment corrodes our system of justice and corrupts those who join in this legalized murder.  And as we’ve dehumanized the offender, we dehumanize the rest of us.  It’s real simple he said:

“Everybody counts or nobody counts.”

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