Before the roundtable discussion had even begun on Saturday night, Park City Institute’s executive director Terri Orr told the audience that this particular booking was one that had been met with some negative feedback from the community at large. But, Orr said, the stage at The Eccles Centre in Park City has “been a platform for many conversations.” And, she continued, “The art of civil discourse is as important an art as we could have right now.”
And, what, pray tell, could have got the good people of Park City in such a tizzy? Well, it was a first-ever conversation between legal expert and former White House advisor turned CNN contributor Van Jones, actor and death penalty abolition activist Mike Ferrell and Kirk Bloodworth, the first man to be exonerated from death row by DNA evidence.
The discussion was led by Jones, who greeted the crowd by telling them, “You’re weird. You’re strange. You care too much. And we need you, we really need you” before he handed the stage over to Ferrell, best known as B.J. Honnicutt on the television series M*A*S*H.
Ferrell got right to his point. “The death penalty is racist in America,” he said, pointing out the disproportionate amount of racial minorities and poor Americans who are sent to death—something he says is the fault of a broken justice system. “The death penalty is the lid on the garbage can,” he said. “Once we remove the lid, we are forced to look at the rotten, stinking, maggot-infected mess that is our criminal justice system.”
The actor said he got involved in the movement after volunteering at a half-way house in Los Angeles and realizing that no one is beyond redemption. And, he said, because of his childhood with an abusive parent, he easily identified with vulnerable people in the face of authority.
Ferrell made it a point to tell the crowd that he opposed the death penalty for both guilty and innocent parties. “Every human being has value,” the activist said. “We cannot snuff that out without doing harm to ourselves.”
After Ferrell spoke for about 15 minutes, it was Bloodworth’s turn at the mic. “I met a girl,” the honorably discharged marine said simply when describing the circumstance that led to his wrongful arrest for the murder of a nine-year-old girl and later the trial that ended with him on Maryland’s death row. After a two week trial Bloodworth said, “The gavel came down on my life. The courtroom erupted in applause, ‘Give him the gas and kill his ass.’”
Throughout the twenty or so minutes he spoke, the only time the calm Bloodworth cracked was when he spoke about his mother, who he said the audience would have loved. “She could finish the New York Times crossword in 20 minutes,” he said, “…In pen.” She died five months before he was released from prison after DNA evidence showed conclusively that he was not the the man that a record-breaking five eyewitnesses placed with the murdered girl.
Bloodworth told the crowd simply, “The death penalty is wrong,” and, he said, “If it can happen to an honorably discharged marine with no criminal record, it can happen to anyone. Utah is no exception.”
While the first two men focused on capital punishment, Van Jones painted his time with the broader strokes of the failures of the judicial system as a whole. “There are people who are despicable and have done horrible things,” he said. “But, I don’t want to talk about Dick Cheney.” If there was any doubt that the crowd assembled in the room were left-leaning, it was removed with the reaction to his joke.
Jones told the crowd that his first call to action in judicial inequity was when he was at Yale and he saw the way the kids in town were treated versus the way Yale students were treated for the same crimes, namely possession of marijuana.
Jones pointed out that prison and judicial reform is a bipartisan issue. Newt Gingrich and Paul Ryan are both in favor of the issue, while President Obama visited a prison last year—the first president to ever do so while in office.
But he pointed the finger back at the American public. “The crime is silence,” he said, “and we’re all guilty.”
The forum was then opened to questions from the audience, a move that quickly became a call-to- action. Unsurprisingly, many of the audience members are locally involved in justice reform. And, because the Utah legislature came within one vote of abolishing the death penalty last, the panelists reminded the crowd that this red state could easy become ground-zero for the movement.
The legislature starts in a little over two weeks, and if this is an issue you feel passionately about, here’s some places to donate your time, energy or money, if you’re so inclined.