Why, asks Robert Blecker, does he support the death penalty? “Three words,” he answers himself. “They deserve it.”
The question is open, at least for a moment, as to who “they” are — the victims seeking solace or “justice,” or vengeance, or the villains, however motivated. For New York Law School professor and well-known retributivist Blecker, the deserving can be felt. One of the few academics who support capital punishment, he explains that he’s frequently called on to testify before committees and panels investigating the morality and legality of such punishment. When he speaks to the New Jersey Death Penalty Commission, he explains the emotional basis of his belief. “I feel certain,” he says. “It’s not that I am certain, I feel certain to the core of my being that the death penalty [in certain cases] is an adequate moral response.”
Blecker makes his case repeatedly in Ted Schilinger’s documentary, Robert Blecker Wants Me Dead. The penalty should be applied only to “the worst of the worst,” he says, and the “remote, remote possibility of executing an innocent person is the ‘cost of doing business.'” This worries anti-death penalty attorney Robert Tabak, who submits that Blecker’s “certainty” that he can know and measure the differences between criminals is unfounded. “The more he goes into this,” Tabak says, “the more you can see that there’s a lot of subjectivity, and the more you see that he thinks he can play God.”
Blecker brings this subjectivity to bear on his relationship with Death Row inmate Daryl Holton. Convicted of killing his four children with an AK-47 in 1997, Holton is awaiting execution when Blecker meets him (his sentence is carried out in 2007, providing an uneasy conclusion — really, more questions — for the film). As they exchange letters and meet occasionally for interviews, the two men express a mix of curiosity respect, and sometimes, dislike for one another, debating the meaning and effect of the death penalty, focusing especially on moral and philosophical issues.
Holton, for his part, maintains that he murdered his children in order to save them from the awful life they were living in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, with their alcoholic mother, in a bad neighborhood. Sending them directly to heaven, Holton says, saved them a lifetime of suffering. His defense strategies (most conducted by him) range from confession to refusing appeals to rationalization to a suggestion by his lawyer that he is not of sound mind.
Blecker will have none of this, focusing on the prosecution’s case that Holton killed the children — and planned to kill hi ex-wife’s boyfriend’s young daughter as well as himself — out of feelings of revenge. Because this motive — along with the crime per se — was heinous, Blecker feels that Holton deserves to die. And yet, even as he works to convince Holton of his wrongness, he also admires the man’s intellect and engagement with the questions he puts to him. “As long as you continue to assert, at least implicitly, that you did the right thing, or at least to admit that what you did was the most horrendous, horrific, the worst mistake anyone could possibly make, and one that if the world were constructed and you had the opportunity to do it again, you never would do it, you aren’t acknowledging the enormity of what you’ve done,” Blecker tells Holton, “which means you’re not taking responsibility.”
The death penalty, for Blecker, is a means of taking responsibility — for the criminal in need of moral reckoning, but also for the state — the jurors included — who, he says, should make decisions on behalf of victims. Beyond that, Blecker holds fast to the notion that his own feeling is an effective gauge of what crime deserves such punishment. “It is overtly emotional,” he says of Holton, “I want him dead. That comes from my gut.” (He recalls his parents as being more conventional liberals, who railed against Hitler and thought the Rosenbergs were wronged; “If they had given the secret of the bomb to Stalin,” he pronounces, “They deserved to die.”)
The film doesn’t overtly argue with Blecker or take his side in any uncomplicated way. Holton appears in newspaper clippings and in courtroom footage as well as in an interview at the prison in Shelbyville, alternately polite and cartoonishly snide. Blecker reads their letters back and forth or offers his assessments of Holton while sitting in his cluttered office, the camera close on their word-processed or handwritten missives, Holton’s marked by Blecker’s notations.
Some of the film’s imagery is obvious — as legal or ethical experts opine on Blecker (ACLU president Nadine Strossen says, “His wanting his personal moral certainty to be reified in law, such that it trumps other people’s contrary moral certainties, is to me rather authoritarian”), he appears literally walking along a median in traffic, riding his stationary bike amid boxes and file cabinets, salting his icy front walk. Yes his way is treacherous, but his thinking — as he frames it — is premised on feeling. He feels he is right and that makes it so.
Blecker’s relationship with Holton is surely provocative and, for all its repetition and Blecker’s effort to control his self-image, also indicative of the problems of making such a film. He speaks directly to Schillinger, who remains off camera: “We’re both aware of the Heisenberg Effect, to what extent are things changing because we’re documenting them?” Indeed — how is Holton’s response to Blecker altered by his audience? How is Blecker’s self-performance informed by the fact of the camera? None of this is precisely measurable. And neither, it seems, are the feelings so fiercely articulated by both men.