Movie Review: "Robert Blecker Wants Me Dead"

Death penalty advocate Robert Blecker, right, and death row inmate Daryl Holton in the documentary that dives into the debate.
Death penalty advocate Robert Blecker, right, and death row inmate Daryl Holton in the documentary that dives into the debate. (Atlas Media)
By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 13, 2009

"Robert Blecker Wants Me Dead" wants to be a documentary about the vast amount of wiggle room between being for the death penalty and being against it. And it fascinatingly is that. But on a deeper level (and a skillfully conscious one on the part of filmmaker Ted Schillinger) it's a portrait of two men's utter loneliness in their thoughts.

Blecker, a New York Law School professor, supports the death penalty on such a contrary and nuanced level -- he calls himself an "emotional retributivist" -- that it has set him apart from both sides of the debate and a large swath of the legal realm. Blecker's work has turned him into a lovably raving, single-minded gadfly who has the sole consolation of knowing he's right. Even his teaching assistant seems baffled by him.

The other person in the film, Daryl Holton, is lonely in a much more direct and despicable way: He was on death row in Tennessee, for shooting and killing his four young children in 1997. From the night of his arrest up to his final appeal, he expressed no remorse for the murders, and steadfastly insisted that he killed his children because he feared his ex-wife was bringing them up in an environment that would ruin their futures (a housing project). Holton tried to represent himself at trial, the film tells us, and resisted his public defenders' attempts to overturn his death sentence and stay his execution. (Spoiler alert: These are past-tense verbs, which should not prevent enjoyment of this film. Which is to say Holton was executed in September 2007.)

To better hone his argument that the death penalty is appropriate for "the worst of the worst," Blecker has a habit of visiting and interviewing death row inmates in various state pens, engaging them on their own feelings of remorse to search for what he feels is a subjective yet reliable way to administer the death penalty. No surprise, these convicted murderers can't really hold up their end of an academic inquiry.

Then Blecker met Holton in January 2006. The two began an impassioned and highly intellectual exchange (in person and in letters) about Holton's exact rationale for killing his children. Schillinger's camera comes along midway through what appears to be a deeply frustrating friendship. (Blecker refuses to call Holton a friend. "What can I say, I want you dead," he tells Holton on one visit. "That's the nicest thing anyone's ever said to me," Holton responds.)

For all his evil, Holton is God's gift to Blecker -- articulate, humorous, an arch correspondent, and all too willing to die. (Willing, it seems, until he files his own 13-page appeal to the Supreme Court at the 11th hour; Blecker reacts to this with a heartbroken sense of betrayal.)

Schillinger's film has the sturdy quality of PBS docu-fare, and not enough original technique for the big screen. We get a complete sketch of Blecker's obsession for what is the most ancient of laws -- retribution, "my brother's blood cries out from the ground," and all that. We meet his lovely, elderly parents and see him shoveling ice in his driveway, swimming at his lake house in Maine and energetically teaching class. But it seems like no mystery why a nice Jewish boy from New York became a law professor and a master at learned argument.

The hole in this movie is the story of Daryl Holton. How'd he get so smart? Who was he? We learn just enough of the grisliness of his crime, and almost nothing about his background. The omission feels intentional, but it's a letdown, especially when Holton's early-morning execution arrives.

Having already said his goodbyes, Blecker decides he has to be as close as he can to Holton's final moment and returns to Tennessee. But at the prison fence, he is forced to make a choice: Stand in the cordoned area with the candle-holding protesters, or stand over here with the nice couple who brought the homemade "Eye 4 an Eye" signs. (Option 3: Stand with television trucks.) Blecker seems genuinely lost, and ends up standing with the vengeance seekers. As he explains his position to them (he thinks Holton should die painlessly by injection, rather than sit in the electric chair), they immediately misunderstand him and hurl twangy insults his way. A switch is flipped, and then Blecker really is alone.

Robert Blecker Wants Me Dead (94 minutes, at Landmark's E Street Cinema) is not rated. It contains graphic descriptions of murder and capital punishment.

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