Movie Mom

Movie Mom

Robert Blecker Wants Me Dead

posted by Nell Minow
Lowest Recommended Age:High School
MPAA Rating:Not Rated
Profanity:Some graphic language
Alcohol/Drugs:References to substance abuse
Violence/Scariness:Discussion of terrible violent crimes and the death penalty
Diversity Issues:A topic in the movie
Movie Release Date:March 20, 2009

Robert Blecker is one of the most outspoken — and unexpected — proponents of the death penalty. He does not try to base his argument on the death penalty as deterrent or to prevent the opportunity for further crimes. The self-described “retributivist advocate of the death penalty has managed to alienate both sides of the debate on the politically divisive and morally complex issue of capital punishment….[H]e makes a powerful case for the death penalty as retribution, but only for the ‘worst of the worst’ offenders.”

Defining what ‘worst of the worst’ means is a constant and sometimes painful struggle for Blecker, and as a part of his continuing effort to define that category he first came into contact with someone who appears to qualify according to anyone’s standard. That man is Daryl Holton, who shot his three children and their half-sibling to death in 1997 because, he said, he thought it was better for them to be dead than to live with their mother.

This documentary about the relationship between the two men does not take sides. It simply documents their conversations, which are vivid, engrossing, and surprising. As Blecker gets to know Holton, he finds it difficult to maintain the sense of outrage that is an essential part of his justification for the death penalty, even in light of the unspeakable nature of the crime. The deepest questions of what we are as humans echo throughout the film. Is Holton’s crime so inhuman that he must be insane and therefore less culpable? Is it inevitable that interviewing him will establish a connection that makes it more difficult to advocate for his being put to death?

This is less a film about the death penalty than it is about more fundamental issues of purpose and meaning. It is a provocative film about deeply troubling issues. No matter what your perspective, it will be challenged. And no matter how you come out, it is that very engagement and need for understanding that ultimately reaches the deepest part of the human experience and responsibility.

  • jason

    i have been to prison so i speak of experience,but also my personal opinion..I feel the death penalty is the easy way out,and if a human goes as far to commit a crime of this magnitude,that there isnt much holding him to this world..Like family or love or belief..So make him suffer day in and day out hour after hour in prison under 23 hour lockdown.Then when the time come jesus christ will give hime the ultimate death penalty.Thanks and may god bless all..

  • Nell Minow

    Jason, I am so grateful to you for sharing your comment. There is no insight more powerful than one who has been there. Blessings on you for your humility and compassion.

  • Dudley Sharp

    About 70% of those sentneced to death have prior experience as inmates in the prison system. Virtually all of them would much prefer staying alive in jail than be executed.
    The additonal 30% alos, almost unanimously, as well, prefer staying alive over being executed.
    If the time comes, when you are sentncd to death, then we shall see what you experience really means, with regard to this topic.

  • Nell Minow

    Mr. Sharp, I am sorry to see this manner of reply. Unless you have served time in prison and been sentenced to death you are not in a position to question the legitimacy of Jason’s point of view. I do not believe that whether one or more prisoners have a suicidal inclination should be a deciding factor. I say this as a lawyer who has worked as a prosecutor.
    I welcome all points of view on this site as long as all commenters stick to the merits and conduct themselves with respect. You do not reflect well on your side of the debate with this tone.

  • Michael

    While I do believe the death penalty is a deterrent (most criminals fight very hard to avoid it), I don’t like the idea of having my tax dollars feed and clothe someone who has taken the life of 4 innocent children. Regardless of how awful prison is. And I would not allow 999 of the worst criminals live just because 1 might be innocent. Just the way I feel.

  • Nell Minow

    Thank you, Michael. Just to get the facts straight, the expense of capital punishment (due to all the appeals, etc.) is greater than the expense of feeding and clothing a prisoner for life. If you have statistics to the contrary, let me know. Your “retributive” argument is the one Mr. Blecker makes as well so I recommend you see the movie.

  • Michael

    I’m sure you’re correct about the cost of capital punishment being higher due to all the appeals. That’s why I don’t believe we need all those appeals. If one can’t sway a judge and jury after two appeals, then the sentence should be carried out, swiftly. Not after years on death row. I’ll make sure to see the film.

  • Dudley Sharp

    Ms. Minow:
    Most certainly, I am in a position to offer a different point of view than Jason’s, particularly since his point of view is contradicted by about 99% of those who are sent to death row.
    The reality of how actual death sentenced folks respond is an important part of the discussion. Possibly a bit more so than Jason’s speculation about what he might do when he hasn’t been to death row.
    It is intersting that you would criticize me, when I offer reality and thank Jason, if that is his name, not even knowing if he had been in prison, but knowing that he is speculating about he would really respond to death row, when he had never been there.

  • Dudley Sharp

    Regarding costs:
    Reasonable and responsible protocols, currently in use, will produce a death penalty which costs no more, or will cost less, than Life Without Parole.
    Death penalty states could better implement justice, as given by jurors, and save taxpayers money, currently wasted by many irresponsible state systems.
    1) Obvious solution: Improve the system. Virginia executes in 5-7 years. 65% of those sentenced to death have been executed. Only 15% of their death penalty cases are overturned. The national averages are 11 years, 14% and 36%, respectively.
    With the high costs of long term imprisonment, a true life sentence will be more expensive than such a death penalty protocol.
    Current cost study problems
    2) Geriatric care: Most cost studies exclude geriatric care, recently found to be $60,000-$90,000/inmate/yr., a significant omission from life sentence costs. Prisoners are often found to be geriatric at relatively young ages, 50-55, because of lifestyle.
    3) Plea Bargain to life: ONLY the presence of the death penalty allows for a plea bargain to a maximum life sentence. Such plea cost benefit, estimated at $500,000 to $1 million/case, accrues as a cost benefit/credit to the death penalty. I am aware of no study which includes this.
    4) The cost of death row: There need not be any additional cost for death row. Missouri doesn’t have one.
    NOTE: Depending upon jurisdiction, the inclusion of only (2) and (3) will result in a minimal cost differential between the two sanctions or an actual net cost benefit to the death penalty. Adding (1) would, very likely, mean that all death penalty jurisdictions would see a cost savings with the death penalty as compared to a true life sentence.
    5) FCC economist Dr. Paul Zimmerman finds that executions result in a huge cost benefit to society. “Specifically, it is estimated that each state execution deters somewhere between 3 and 25 murders per year (14 being the average). Assuming that the value of human life is approximately $5 million {i.e. the average of the range estimates provided by Viscussi (1993)}, our estimates imply that society avoids losing approximately $70 million per year on average at the current rate of execution all else equal.” The study used state level data from 1978 to 1997 for all 50 states (excluding Washington D.C.). (1)
    That is a cost benefit of $70 million per execution. 15 additional recent studies, inclusive of their defenses, support the deterrent effect.
    No cost study has included such calculations.
    Although we find it inappropriate to put a dollar value on life, evidently this is not uncommon for economists, insurers, etc.
    We know that living murderers are infinitely more likely to harm and murder, again, than are executed murderers. There is no doubt that executions do save innocent lives. What value do you put on the lives saved? Certainly not less than $5 million.
    6) The Disinformation problem: The pure deception in some cost “studies” is overt.
    a) Some studies compare the cost of a death penalty case, including pre trial, trial, appeals and incarceration, to only the cost of incarceration for 40 years, excluding all trial costs and appeals, and geriatric care for a life sentence. The much cited, highly misleading Texas “study” does this.
    b) It has been claimed that it costs $3.2 million/execution in Florida. That “study” decided to add the cost of the entire death penalty system in Florida ($57 million), which included all of the death penalty cases and dividing that number by only the number of executions (18). It is the same as stating that the cost of LWOP is $15 million/case, based upon all costs of 2000 LWOP cases being placed into the 40 lifers to have died (given an average cost of $300, 000/LWOP case, so far, for those 2000 cases.)
    c) Many of the “studies”, such as Maryland’s, suffer from similar or worse problems.
    7) The main reason sentences are given is because jurors find that it is the most just punishment available. No state, concerned with justice, will base a decision on cost alone. If they did, all cases would be plea bargained and every crime would have a probation option.
    1). “State Executions, Deterrence and the Incidence of Murder”, Paul R. Zimmerman (, March 3. 2003, Social Science Research Network,

  • Nell Minow

    The protections of our legal system are not a technicality. As a lawyer who worked in the district and US Attorney’s offices and is inclined to the prosecutorial point of view I am not willing to jettison Constitutional protections that are built into our system for valid reasons that go to the heart of our most fundamental notions of justice.
    And I still think it is easy to imagine how you might feel in a particular situation but that is not the same as being in it. In any event, the subjective impressions of people who are or think they can imagine themselves to be on death row is irrelevant to the validity of the death penalty. It does not do justice — in both senses of the word — to this important debate to try to justify the ultimate punishment by relying on how the prisoner feels about it.

  • Dudley Sharp

    Ms. Minow
    No one stated that “The protections of our legal system are” just a technicality or that jettison Constitutional protections should be jettisoned.
    You entered an arguement that no one made, an unfortunate debate tactic.
    You amke the same point I did. You write: “I still think it is easy to imagine how you might feel in a particular situation but that is not the same as being in it.”
    That is why reviewed the reality of those facing the death penalty, as opposed to “Jason’s” speculation. Yet you praised him and criticized me.
    I would ask that you attempt some intellectual fairness in your tratment of the death penalty and not just, blindly, criticizze pro death penalty positions and blindly accept anti death penalty ones, because of your strong bias.
    We all have our biases, but it is important to allow some intellectual honesty in an exchange of ideas.
    For example, there was no effort by me “to justify the ultimate punishment by relying on how the prisoner feels about it.”
    It was obvious that I was giving a rastional, fact based contrast to Jasons’ speculation and nothing more.
    I consider your comment, again, to be an arguement not in the discussion, a backhanded method of asserting that I depend on murderers feelings to determine death penalty justification. It was an irresponsible effort, which neither I nor this debate deserves.
    I attempt to be fair and clear within this debate. I wish you would do the same.

  • Nell Minow

    Mr. Sharp, as noted above I am a lawyer who worked in both the state and federal prosecutor’s offices and at the Department of Justice. I am very familiar with these issues and with what constitutes relevant evidence and principled argument.
    It is always easy to accuse the other side of bias and irrationality. But that is not the same as rational debate. Your response to Jason was unkind and unfair. And other than cutting and pasting generic material you have used before, your responses here have not been very substantive or responsive. I ask all commenters on this site to treat the other participants with courtesy and respect in expressing their views. Insult is not argument and it is always easy to characterize anyone who does not agree with you as biased. But that is not the same as responding on the merits.
    As I noted above, I do not believe that a condemned prisoner’s subjective, self-reported views are relevant to the legal and public policy issues concerning the legitimacy or efficacy of the death penalty. But you are the one, in response to Jason, who said “reality of how actual death sentenced folks respond is an important part of the discussion.” So, that is contrary to your allegation that ” there was no effort by me ‘to justify the ultimate punishment by relying on how the prisoner feels about it.'” In my view, it does not justify the death penalty by saying either that prisoners on death row either agree or disagree with it.
    I do not believe that this is a decision to be made on economic terms, either. I was glad to correct Michael’s facts, but that does not mean that I believe that we should sentence prisoners based on what saves the most money rather than on what best serves justice and meets Constitutional standards.
    It seemed to me that you were dismissive of the protections of our legal system as technicalities. If that is not true, and you support the rights of those sentenced to death to file all of the appeals to which they are entitled under the law, I apologize.

  • Dudley Sharp

    Ms. Minow writes, directed at me.
    “And other than cutting and pasting generic material you have used before, your responses here have not been very substantive or responsive. I ask all commenters on this site to treat the other participants with courtesy and respect in expressing their views. Insult is not argument and it is always easy to characterize anyone who does not agree with you as biased. But that is not the same as responding on the merits.”
    All cutting and pasting have been speicifc to the direct subject at hand. They were more substantive and complete than were your original comments (or those of others) and were. specificially responsive to the topic.
    I reply specifically to posters comments and do not create false beliefs with arguments that do not exist. I am both direct and respectful.
    My opinion is that we are all biased and that your posts are obviously biased against the death penalty as well as against those positions that undermine the anti death penalty rhetoric.

  • Nell Minow

    If you are going to characterize everyone as biased then that applies to you, too. I am sure we both believe that our views on the subject are substantive and based on logic and objective criteria. I can say as a lawyer who has worked in the criminal justice system at state and federal prosecutors’ offices and for a criminal defense counsel that have had significant experience that has provided a foundation for my views on the subject and as a movie critic I believe that the two films on this topic I have reviewed are well-constructed to allow viewers to come to their own conclusions, as they will regarding our comments.

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