Tuesday, June 24, 2008

By Mike Farrell

The below comes courtesy of actor, activist, President of Death Penalty Focus, and friend, Mike Farrell, and is an excerpt from his preface to Rev. Joseph B. Ingle's book, Last Rights: Thirteen Fatal Encounters with the State's Justice:

Down Deep into the Struggle
By Mike Farrell

"During the years I was playing "BJ Hunnicutt" on M*A*S*H, I was contacted by a minister who wanted to meet me. Letters and messages of that sort came from fans of the show all the time, but this one was different: a minister of the United Church of Christ from Nashville, Tennessee, Joe Ingle ran the Southern Coalition on Jails and Prisons and wrote of his determination to abolish the death penalty.

When he came to the set, I saw a man cut from a different cloth than those I usually associated with the term "minister." Rather than the scholarly reserve, the gray-haired dignified steadiness, or the studied humility that implies a comfortable relationship with God, here was a man of passion. It quickly became clear that he was a man of deep faith, but just as clearly, he was pissed. Younger than I, Joe was thin and bespectacled with an unruly shock of black hair, and he was ready to do battle for the Lord. His Lord was angry at the conditions that society required some of the least among us to endure during their time on Earth.

I quickly learned that he had lived in East Harlem while attending Union Theological Seminary and, having spent his off hours working at the Bronx House of Detention, was intent on teaching America that crime was the legacy of hopelessness, ignorance, racism, and poverty, and needed to be dealt with honestly, by going to the source. Relegating the products of these social ills to a harsh, inhumane, and corrupt criminal justice system only compounded the problem. Topping it off by state killing, a scheme that was antithetical to everything he believed as a Christian, was degrading the moral fabric of our nation. It was easy to see the anger in his eyes when he talked about the death penalty.

After state killing had come under attack in the late '60's, the U.S. Supreme Court held, in the Furman v. Georgia decision of 1972, that it was "cruel and unusual punishment" as practiced, and thus unconstitutional. In 1976, the death penalty was reinstated in Gregg v. Georgia, with the proviso that because "death is different," certain "safeguards" were required to make it pass Constitutional muster. When Joe visited me, there had been only a couple of executions under the new ruling: Gary Gilmore had died before a firing squad in Utah in 1977 in a case often thought of as state-assisted suicide, and John Spenkelink had been electrocuted in Florida in 1979, the first "involuntary" execution since Gregg. Joe Ingle had been deeply involved in Spenglelink's case, knew the young man well, and was furious at the way the state treated him, as he tells us in Last Rights. The injustice, the inhumanity of it, was an insult to everything Joe believed, and he was determined to put an end to it.

Though I had long opposed the death penalty, Joe's passion and dedication to not just wring his hands, but to get down deep into the struggle was inspiring. A few months later, he took me to my first death row, at Tennessee State Prison, a visit that crystallized for me an understanding that the death machine is an evil in our society, the use of which constitutes a fundamental violation of human rights. As Simone Weil tells us, "Evil when we are in its power is not felt as evil but as a necessity, or even a duty." This short visit, more than a quarter of a century ago, introduced me to "the condemned," a few of the men and women our society deemed unfit to live. It helped me understand the damage we do ourselves by assuming these God-like airs. And it kindled in me a flame that will not be staunched until we rid ourselves of this demon."

To learn more about Rev. Joe Ingle's struggle against state-assisted murder, and finish reading this wonderful preface, I encourage you to get Last Rights: Thirteen Fatal Encounters with the State's Justice.