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Actor Mike Farrell has many reasons for opposing the death penalty.

His list is a familiar one to those who have followed the capital punishment debate: The system is a flawed one that has resulted in the execution of innocent people. The death penalty doesn't deter people from killing. It unfairly targets minorities and the poor.

But for Farrell, best known for his role as B.J. Hunnicutt on the long-running television series M*A*S*H, the biggest reason to oppose the ultimate punishment is what he sees a desensitizing effect it has had among Americans regarding the sanctity of human life .

Farrell appeared in Helena Tuesday with fellow actor and death penalty opponent James Cromwell for a screening of Cromwell's 1999 film "The Green Mile," a film about a wrongly convicted death row inmate

Tuesday's event was organized by the Montana Abolition Coalition in support of Senate Bill 236, a bill to abolish the death penalty and replace it with a sentence of life without the possibility of parole.

"For me, the most compelling argument and most deeply felt concern is the dehumanizing aspect of it," he said. "I don't mean to the convicted, I mean to society. I think we are harming ourselves.

"To have a system that effectively says that under the right circumstances it's OK to take a life is wrong. We are becoming a nation of torturers."

Farrell said he has opposed capital punishment since he was a child and has been an activist against the death penalty since the U.S.Supreme Court reinstated its constitutionality in 1976.

Cromwell came to the anti-death penalty cause a little more recently, spurred partly by his friendship with Farrell and his role in the "The Green Mile."

"I think 'The Green Mile' was certainly influential (on me)," Cromwell said. "It was one of the greatest scripts I ever read. I was deeply moved by it while making the film and deeply moved when I watched the film."

One of the people in attendance at Tuesday's screening was Marietta Jaeger Lane of Three Forks, whose 7-year-old daughter, Susie, was kidnapped and murdered in 1973 while the family was on a camping trip at Missouri Headwaters State Park.

For a year after the kidnapping, Jaeger Lane didn't know whether Susie was alive or dead. She said she spent a lot of time that year wishing she could personally kill with her bare hands the person who took her child.

But she said her Catholic faith brought her to the conclusion that she needed to forgive.

"I thought, in God's eyes, this person is just as precious as my little girl," Jaeger Lane said. "To take his life in her name would be an insult to her memory.

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"I felt I had to aspire to a higher moral principle."

She said her attitude of forgiveness paid off when her daughter's killer called her on the eve of the first anniversary of the kidnapping with the intent of taunting her. When instead of hatred, he found a voice 0f compassion, he stayed on the phone with her for an hour, ultimately providing Jaeger Lane with enough information to help solve the crime and find the killer.

Since then, Jaeger Lane has traveled the world speaking out against capital punishment. She said meeting with families of victims has reaffirmed her position. She said that contrary to many people's beliefs, executing a killer doesn't bring closure to the families. It doesn't heal. It certainly doesn't undo the hurt.

"They're left just as empty as they were before," she said. "All it does is make another victim.

"Forgiveness is not for wimps," she added. "It takes daily diligence. But it was worth it."

Senate Bill 236 passed the state Senate by a 27-23 vote and is now awaiting action by the House. It has yet to have an initial hearing before the House Judiciary Committee.

Joe Menden: 447-4087 or joe.menden@helenair.com

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