The Deaf Penalty: ‘Robert Blecker Wants Me Dead’

‘Robert Blecker Wants Me Dead’ is a 2008 documentary about two men. One is the Robert Blecker of the title, a law professor from South Manhattan, who campaigns for the death penalty. The other is Daryl Holton, a former Gulf War veteran and (current) death row inmate who murdered his four children and is waiting for his sentence to be carried out.

Through his work, Blecker ends up visiting Holton in prison, and is surprised by how emotionally engaged he is with the man. The film is the story of their cautiously developing friendship and it’s context within their apparently diametrically opposed worlds.

Much of the hype around the documentary at the time of it’s release was focussed on how it was even possible for two men in those positions could be friends. But this wasn’t what struck me as I watched it. Obviously they can be friends. Defining people by their actions only provides a limited picture of who they are, because their actions can be and frequently are driven by circumstance.

You would have to be an idiot to disagree that Daryl Holton’s crime was heinous – it was the premeditated shooting of four young children in a garage – but he believes he had justifiable reason to, given the circumstances. Does his crime make him a ‘bad person’? Under conventional thinking, yes, but conventional thinking has us focus on the wrong word in that sentence. He may be ‘bad’, whatever that means, but even we admit he’s still a person.

In provocative and emotive cases like this, it is a natural reaction to lash out at the perpetrator. We might be human, but most of us retain enough of our animal instinct to feel that if a predator takes our young, we are justified, even obliged, to engage in violent retribution.

Robert Blecker believes this. He describes himself as an ’emotive retributivist’ and believes that the death penalty is the only ‘just penalty for the worst of the worst’. He states ‘some people deserve to die, and it’s our obligation to kill them.’

The question that came to mind for me was, isn’t the whole point of law to remove raw emotion from a decision making process? Acts driven by high emotion are generally the ones we try to control through law, so to use anger and pain as a justification for killing a man for an act driven by those very emotions seems somewhat illogical in what is supposed to be a civilised society.

Similarly, Blecker’s shock at his emotional connection with Daryl Holton highlights the kind of disconnection from reality that causes people to commit crime in the first place. If your victim is depersonalised, it is easier to commit an atrocity against them. When you engage, it becomes harder. Whichever side of the glass you’re standing on.

Robert Blecker is a law professor, and it bothered me that he clearly had no grasp of this essential separation. But then, why should he? His theories were tacitly advocated by the state of Tennessee on September 12th 2007, when Holton was executed by electrocution at Riverbend Max Security Institution in Nashville. Robert Blecker was there, but Holton’s supporters refused to allow him into the compound and he had to wait outside the chain link fence.

As far as I’m aware, his experience with Daryl Holton has not changed his views on capital punishment, and he still teaches at the New York Law School. It can only be hoped that his students are as closed to the possibility of learning something from experience as he was; it’s the only way they might be saved from his poorly conceived dogma.

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