Thursday, February 26, 2009

Buddy Movie: Robert Blecker Wants Me Dead

Robert Blecker is an unusual liberal. A New York Law School professor, Blecker is one of the few academics dedicated to defending the politically incorrect position on the death penalty. He would find the most challenging intellectual sparring partner of his career in death-row inmate Daryl Holton. Surprisingly though, they seemed to share similar opinions on the death penalty. Both supported it as public policy and believed it should be applied to Holton himself. That strange common ground leads to an unlikely relationship that approaches friendship in Ted Schillinger’s documentary Robert Blecker Wants Me Dead (trailer here), which opens in New York this Friday.

Unlike most capitol punishment advocates, Blecker never shies away from the concept of retribution—in fact, it is central to his arguments. At times, his world-view sounds distinctly Biblical, as when he often quotes: “The voice of your brother's blood is crying to Me from the ground.” In a nutshell, Blecker’s supposedly radical position is that those who take life in particularly heinous fashion deserve to die, accordingly.

Schillinger is scrupulously fair to his primary subject, giving him sufficient time to adequately explain his positions. Though passionate to a fault, Blecker should not be written-off as a zealot. Early in the film, he unequivocally opposes death sentences for unpremeditated murders committed during arm robberies and the like, which make up the majority of American death row cases. His outrage is palpable when watching death-row inmates playing dominoes or lifers enjoying a friendly softball game, raising a legitimate point that the American justice system is preoccupied with duration, but ignores the question of intensity.

To bolster his case, Blecker started interviewing death-row inmates, which is how he met the disarmingly self-aware Holton. Though Blecker himself uses terms like smart and witty to describe Holton, the film never lets the audience forget the nature of his crimes. The Tennessee man lined-up his three sons and step-daughter (ages 4 to 12) and executed them with an assault rifle.

Blecker finds Holton refreshing because he readily admits his guilt and fights all attempts to appeal his sentence. Their major bone of contention is Holton’s motive. Blecker is driven to force Holton to admit he killed out of wrath or spite and not to save his children from a sinful upbringing in the hands of his morally bankrupt (according to Holton) ex-wife. Then as Holton’s execution is nearly at hand, he does the unthinkable. He files his own last minute appeal.

It might sound like an odd little story, but the saga of Blecker and Holton has some unexpectedly engrossing twists and turns. Blecker’s personality is a force of nature, pulling audiences through the film despite whatever preconceptions they might have entered with. Most documentaries claim to be even-handed and then proceed to exercise unconcealed favoritism. However, Schillinger is remarkably fair to all sides of the issue and never loses sight of the horrific nature of Holton’s crimes. As a result, Blecker compares quite favorably to At the Death House Door, another recent death penalty documentary which is much more of a stacked deck. It opens Friday in New York at the Cinema Village.