Being for the death penalty is a lot more complicated than it sounds

Robert Blecker Wants Me Dead

on February 18, 2009 by Matthew Nestel

It’s downright flagrant to posthumously title this film from the perspective of the deceased. But it’s accurate. Legal ace Robert Blecker wants to off “the worst of the worst” and makes no bones about it. The New York-based esquire is shadowed by docmaker Ted Schillinger as he goes on a crusade to exorcize the death penalty demons and muzzle what he claims are outnumbered critics, one vociferous rant at a time. But he’s clearly outmatched here. Blecker’s a criminal-studied counselor trying to be a cowboy but gets outplayed by a convict in a game of real-life, er, death chess. The little documentary (which made a critical slip by letting Blecker get the last word) will insight a few spicy debates on the death penalty and its moral justification in these modern lock’em-up-and-throw-away-the-key-times. But because of the decision to parlay the prof’s excessive hubris this cinematic case will not be spared a stay of execution.

As a glorified retributionist—siding with the tenet that a punishment must be proportionate to the crime committed—Professor Blecker is a crusader relying on his bookcases and lecture circuit acumen to convince the masses that he’s right. When put to practice, all the theory under the beltline is carved and served back at Blecker in medallion sized morsels. Director Ted Schillinger does a nice job with the setup. You witness an eccentric at his university office surrounded by stacks of papers, trading barbs with his foxy young research assistant (who isn’t drinking his Kool-Aid). As he yaps there’s a framed proverb hung on the wall that reads: “Their laws will be like cobwebs—catching only the flies and letting the wasps escape.” It’s as if Blecker surrounds himself with anecdotes that remind him why he must lead death knoll’s chorus.

On the road, Blecker does the speech circuit and manages to schedule a few visits to super max prisons where the presumed hellish face of death row institutions is upended. The couple of correctional facilities look like sanctuaries rivaling the outside world. You witness hardened criminals sentenced to perish, not rotting in a dungeon but playing dominoes or even playing a few penal league baseball innings. The greater intelligencia (even his opponents) tip their hats giving pluck to Blecker’s walk and trot. For most, Blecker is a one-man army who is trying to get his message through to deaf ears. Jailhouse interviews with savage rapists and killers don’t rattle this New York tough guy’s armor, and he keeps plodding along, preaching pro-death.

But unlike many of the Geraldo Rivera-powdered nose and combed mustache-like stand-ups, the professor chooses an untidy correspondence with convict named Daryl Holton. Reason leaps out the door soon afterward. He shares a taste of the letters he’s received over time and sure enough they are wry and carry an eloquent zest that compounds any good storyteller’s. Blecker’s no dummy. He gets his man writing and writing and chats him up over the phone. The teacher and his pet muse go back and forth until it’s clear they must meet. Blecker takes his show out to Shelbyville, Tennessee to understand what made this genius of a man metamorphose into cold-blooded killer. The skinny on Holton is this: over a decade ago he shot his four children point-blank in his uncle’s mechanic garage and never denied it from the start. On his way for face time with Holton, Blecker states, “Daryl deserves to die quick and painlessly—but he deserves to live painfully.” Professor Blecker assigns himself the task to administer the guilty sting.

When asked by lawmakers why the need for the death penalty Blecker doesn’t stutter. “Three words: They deserve it.” But why? “One word: justice.” His favorite form of termination is by firing squad. (Maybe it’s honorable or just a fond throwback to the old days.) He’s used to getting the money quote from his subjects when he asks leading questions to a child-molesting murderer like, “You think about the life she should have had?” The convict answers, “I think a lot about her.” Yikes. Then there’s Daryl Holton and in three sentences you see why this film matters: the clean-shaven, baby-faced southerner in his 40s, convicted of four counts of murder, succumbs to his fate. “I don’t mind celebrating my culpability. I will take no more or less. I think the death penalty is proportional to the crime.” Entrapping Holton to fall in line becomes a sort of obsession. When in doubt, the professor tries to throw turns to the good book: "Listen! Your Brother's blood cries out to me from the ground" and Holton is unfazed. Blecker tries to get personal to goad the guy, telling him, “I want you dead.” Holton responsds: “That’s the nicest thing anyone’s said to me in years.”

Let me make it clear—there is no support on my part for a convicted, murdering father who gunned down his kids execution style because he wanted to save them from hell. That was his defense, after all. The picture’s context is not putting on the table this man’s crimes and stewing over them. No. What’s going on here is more akin to planting a satchel filled with seeds created from the confines of libraries and classrooms to see if those seeds can grow in the soil outdoors. And when pinned against the wall, the academic has to explain why the experiment didn’t work or why something happened but not as he thought it would. You see Blecker’s knees buckle when he tries to go hard at Daryl Holton. Short of admitting that the killing stemmed from revenge, Holton will only concede that he would have preferred, in hindsight, to have had other options. Things come to such a head for the professor because he can’t seem to stir the “coward” in Holton. Holton then cuts his adversary down saying, “Reexamine your motives.” At that moment, the jig is up for Blecker’s obsession. And Holton knows more about obsession than anyone. Sedate as can be, the dead man walking sends the free Yankee civilian back up North to contemplate everything.

Just who is the teacher in this film? If you were to believe the hype, it would be Professor Blecker, who’s so transfixed on this one would-be lunatic that he’s willing to force an admission that his motives were malicious and not cooked from some worthy scheme to save the tots from a miserable life. Blecker wants a confession, but not the kind you hear at a police precinct. He wants this man to bear his soul. And to this end the roles reverse—for Holton becomes the kingmaker and Blecker finds himself dejected and forced to fall back on his memorized and clearly ventilated moral imperatives. The film’s a wicked batch of screwy logic but, even when tossed and shaken, all the moving pieces fall into place. The pitfalls are in the filmmaker allowing the main character to dictate the structure. Professor Blecker may want his muse gone but when and if that end is reached, he’ll still be left to face himself and his own mortality. The second wind in Blecker’s life came while he was dialoging and pointing his dagger at Holton during the man’s ultimate countdown. Now the dagger’s rusted and tucked away. What’s left when the entire purpose for living is fried?

Distributor: Atlas Media Corp.
Director: Ted Schillinger
Producers: Bruce David Klein
Genre: Documentary
Rating: Unrated
Running time: 94 min.
Release date: February 27 NY

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