Robert Blecker Wants Me Dead Dir. Ted Schillinger

[Atlas Media; 2009]

Robert Blecker does a really great job of coming across as an asshole in Ted Schillinger’s topical documentary, Robert Blecker Wants Me Dead. He always seems slightly angry, a result of the righteous indignation he feels after realizing that many criminals do not receive the punishment he thinks they deserve. Blecker is one of the only respected proponents of the death penalty left in academia, and his arguments in favor of capital punishment are about as irksome as not being able to think of an appropriate metaphor to describe an irksome pro-death-penalty law professor. Over the past few decades, Mr. Blecker has made it his mission to enlighten people in regards to the death penalty, and his arguments roughly boil down to this: the death penalty should be abolished for all but the most severe crimes -- and for those most heinous of offenses, the death penalty is the only morally adequate response. It seems barbaric on the face of it, and one could argue that it is, but you have to hand it to him for coming up with some ingenious defenses for what many see as an indefensible position.

Robert Blecker Wants Me Dead is fascinating because of how Mr. Blecker applies his theories in actual practice. While researching conditions in death rows across America, attempting to refute the argument that conditions there were cruel and unusual, Mr. Blecker conducted a series of interviews with inmates of varying demographics, asking them basic questions about their living situations and, ultimately, if they believed they deserved to die. Here’s where the intrigue comes in. When Mr. Blecker interviews a man in a Tennessee prison named Daryl Holton, he comes to the last question: “Do you think you deserve to die?” Holton answers as calmly as if he were being bothered by the census man, “Of course.” Holton sits in prison, convicted of lining up his four children and shooting them to death with an assault rifle in order to “spare them from going to Hell.” As Mr. Holton illustrates his belief that he not only deserves to die, but also wishes to do so as quickly as possible, we see Blecker’s eyes light up, obviously perceiving the possibility of a twisted intellectual partnership developing. And that’s exactly what happens.

Blecker and Holton begin exchanging letters, both essentially agreeing on the necessity of the death penalty. Blecker asserts that Holton deserves to die a quick but painful death (how macabre), and Holton totally agrees. This is what constitutes the majority of the film — the relationship between Blecker and Holton, as it progresses from a fascination to an obsession. Interspersed with this slightly exploitive treatment of the friendship of a lawyer and the man he wants to see put to death are Blecker’s musings on why he’s right and the rest of the legal establishment is wrong.

Blecker’s view on the death penalty and its necessity is an interesting proposition. For instance, he stresses his belief that crimes such as botched armed robberies that result in murder should not be punishable by the death penalty, because, supposedly, the intent to kill is not the motive force behind the act. It is important to note how truly puzzling it is to see an esteemed law professor try to argue for a radical change in the criminal justice system based solely on intent, seeing as intent is hardly ever truly knowable. As a professor at the New York Law School in Manhattan, Blecker has plenty of opportunities for debate and heated argument with those he disagrees with, and to Schillinger’s credit the arguments are edited without preference for either side. The lynchpin of Mr. Blecker’s argument is rooted in what he calls Emotive Retributivism. An Emotional Retributivist, Blecker asserts, is a functioning member of society who naturally feels rage at the vicious killing of someone in her community. Blecker is fond of repeating the phrase “the blood of my your brother calls out to me from the ground.” An Emotional Retributivist, Blecker claims, will admit a desire to punish the perpetrator of a truly vicious crime with a commensurate sentence — presumably death.

You could distill Blecker’s arguments and those of his opponents as being on opposite ends of the bible. Obviously Blecker represents a vengeful god — although does not state whether he believes in one or not — the god of the Old Testament and eye-for-an-eye fame. His harshest critics are quick to cite the necessity of forgiveness and mercy as precious and essential building blocks of any truly humanistic society, some even going so far as to quote from the gospels found in the New Testament, specifically in reference to divine mercy.

Ultimately, Schilinger’s documentary is worth watching because of the personalities who inhabit it and the sense of urgency that naturally develops when you realize that one of those characters is dead because of events directly relating to this documentary. If you think about it hard enough, Robert Blecker Wants Me Dead might just be the most chilling thing you’re going to watch this year.

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