Robert Blecker is an New York Law School professor and outspoken proponent of the death penalty, and the “me” referred to by Robert Blecker Wants Me Dead is Daryl Holton, who in 1997 cold-bloodedly murdered his four children with an AK-47 and with whom Blecker formed an uneasy relationship in the years leading up to Holton’s 2007 execution. Only serviceably shot on cruddy DV but smartly refusing to embrace either side of the capital punishment issue, Ted Schillinger’s documentary focuses squarely on Blecker, whose support for the death penalty comes from a fundamental belief that, in extreme, limited circumstances, “proportionate punishment” for a heinous crime is a lethal one. A self-described “retributionist,” Blecker contends that anger and hate are natural responses to the most vicious, violent crimes, and that such emotions, rather than being stifled by levelheaded logic, should instead play a key role in determining legal penalties, a conviction that casts the death penalty not in terms of deterrence but one of “justice.”
The tightrope Blecker walks is a slippery one, given that it involves deciding convicts’ sentences (and means of implementing those judgments) through uneasily defined or regulated moral standards and sentiments. And it’s a belief system challenged by his correspondence and face-to-face meetings with Holton, a smart, well-spoken man who wants (and has worked hard) to ensure his own execution. Blecker’s eagerness to have Holton take responsibility for his actions—which he claims stemmed from a desire to protect his kids from his ex-wife’s lower-class lifestyle—by acknowledging the enormity of what he did soon becomes the crux of Robert Blecker Wants Me Dead, as their back-and-forths soon raise the issue of the underlying motives of Blecker’s philosophy.
Blecker’s criteria for making such life-and-death decisions (“Do you hate him enough to kill him?”) aims to create moral clarity through visceral reactions. Still, despite his own seemingly rigid notions of right and wrong, Blecker remains a complicated figure who seems driven by both a relatable, furious wish for punishment that fits the crime—in a telling moment, he vocalizes revulsion over the recreational games of dominoes and baseball that death-row inmates are allowed to enjoy—as well as an obsessive, mildly irrational, old-world anger (“The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground” being a favorite bibilical quote) that, as Holton opines, treads close to “bloodlust.” Miring itself in both the sound and troubling aspects of Blecker’s views, as well as the honesty and hypocrisy of his actions, Schillinger’s portrait unobtrusively allows its zealous, self-reflective subject to speak for himself. In the process, his doc proves a question, rather than an answer, from the middle ground of a polarizing debate.