Stars and Bars 

Actor-activist Mike Farrell disses the death penalty and a local guy reveals that lie-detector tests come from Berkeley.

Mike Farrell played second banana to Alan Alda in the TV series M*A*S*H, whose cast members increasingly wore their bleeding hearts on their olive-drab sleeves through the course of the show's twelve-year run. And like his co-star, Farrell has long been involved in social-justice issues. As president of the board of San Francisco-based Death Penalty Focus, he has found a cause, and he appeared at Cody's recently to tell his story and launch his new book, Just Call Me Mike: My Journey to Actor and Activist (RDV, $21.95).

A laid-back guy wearing jeans, a black T-shirt, and a matching blazer, and with a halo of cloud-white hair, Farrell came across like a hip, friendly priest. He dislikes the term "activist," preferring to label himself a "citizen." Occasionally, his presentation shifted into oratorical overdrive: "Our destiny is in the stars," he proclaimed at one point, "but others would have us go back into the cave." But this is no Hollywood himbo who's, like, into peace and stuff. Farrell knows his shit, and, speaking with a calm but passionate self-assurance, he recited from a filibuster's worth of ready facts, figures, and anecdotes about the death-penalty issue.

During the Q&A, one audience member proffered the conservative catechism about how expensive it is for the government to support life-sentence inmates. Farrell countered that the absurdly attenuated process of moving death-row prisoners along from the reading of their rights to reading them the last rites — which can take up to 25 years, mind you — costs three times as much as locking them up and throwing away the key.

Penologists might as well have camped out at Cody's because, two nights later, a lanky, shock-haired Northwestern University history and humanities professor appeared there to expound on a curious little contraption that has had a profound influence on our judicial system. Ken Alder, author of The Lie Detectors: The History of an American Obsession (Free Press, $27), had the audience in his hands from the moment he fingered Berkeley — his own hometown — as the birthplace of the modern polygraph test. It was there in the 1920s, he related, that progressive-minded police chief August Vollmer championed a device developed by John Larson, a cop with a Ph.D in psychology, and finessed by Larson's protégé and later bitter rival Leonarde Keeler, the marketing mastermind behind the lie-detector test we know and love today.

The polygraph's admissibility in court cases was short-lived, but law enforcement, which continued to use the machine nonetheless, entered into a love-hate relationship with it. For one thing, such was its assumed infallibility that guilty parties often confessed before they were even hooked up.

Although the psychology community has never vetted its scientific validity and its usage has diminished, the lie detector still looms large in popular culture, serving, as the author noted, "as a window into what we ourselves believe."

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