Film Review: Robert Blecker Wants Me Dead

Intriguing, thought-provoking documentary about a pro-death-penalty lawyer and his unlikely relationship with a murderer on death row will satisfy socially conscious viewers on both sides of the ever-controversial issue.

It’s an odd but intriguing duo who confront each other in this film about pro-capital-punishment advocate and law professor Robert Blecker and his frequent and wholly civil meetings and correspondence with death row inmate Daryl Holton, convicted of killing his four children.

What makes this match-up even more intriguing is that Blecker, who teaches at the New York Law School in lower Manhattan, is highly articulate and impassioned in his belief that certain murderers deserve to be put to death. The word “certain” is important here, because it reflects his measured and deeply considered take on the highly controversial issue of the death sentence.

Not mincing words but tempering his emotions in typical lawyerly fashion, Blecker, a “retributionalist,” is an energized one-man crusader for capital punishment as just retribution. He makes the argument to his students and others that death is the only just penalty for “the worst of the worst,” which is his way of describing what he identifies as that small number of the nation’s convicted murderers who have surrendered their right to live by the “irredeemable viciousness” of their crimes. In a nutshell, he believes that “some people deserve to die, and we are obliged to kill them.”

Although his arguments make sense, they are wobbly. For instance, what constitutes “irredeemable viciousness” and crimes of murder that are “deserving” of death as punishment? And how do we account for human error and bias in making such judgments?

In a twist on Shaw’s Professor Higgins, Blecker has a perverse Doolittle in Daryl Holton, the death row inmate about to die. But Holton, no candidate for reform, serves solely as Blecker’s example of the kind of felon that our justice system should, as Blecker has it, “rightfully kill.”

Holton coolly and methodically shot his four children to death with an assault rifle in Shelbyville, Tennessee, in 1997 and was given four separate death sentences. This captivating doc is the result of Blecker’s 2005 research trip to Riverbend Maximum Security Prison, where he met Holton. In frank conversations, the two share their ideas and form a weird bond. Blecker, a Jew who invokes the horror of the Holocaust and man’s capacity for evil worthy of extreme punishment, is direct about his views. Holton comes across as disturbingly normal as he exhibits keen intelligence, wit and even an appealing playfulness. Most surprising, Holton is even in accord with Blecker that he should be put to death.

Robert Blecker Wants Me Dead includes ample footage of the lawyer articulating a highly compelling case for capital punishment for those whose crime and attitude warrant such punishment. The film also offers an engaging dramatic arc that creates suspense as to whether Holton will actually be executed. Above all, the film should reignite debates about the death penalty as such extreme punishment succumbs more and more to liberal beliefs that it is just plain wrong, no matter the circumstances of the crime or the attitude and motives of the killer.