Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Tennessean Columnist and Pro-Execution Advocate Robert Blecker Goes Eloquently Off the Deep End

Posted By on Wed, Dec 1, 2010 at 5:27 AM

Robert Blecker
  • Robert Blecker
You wouldn't know it by reading Robert Blecker's pro-death penalty column on — where he's listed simply as a New York Law School professor — but he's actually a pretty fascinating guy. He stands alone in academia as an "emotional retributivist," which essentially means he's an Old Testament, taste-of-your-own-medicine, restoring-the-balance-of-justice (whatever the hell that means) kind of guy.

The "emotional" part of that designation means Blecker would use some subjective, intuitive interpretation of the condemned's feelings of remorse as a way to select the most fitting method of execution. Clearly, this is a batshit insane way to play God in a legal system that is notably not without error, and Blecker is regarded by many of his peers as a bit of a crank — too far out on a limb to reside in either camp.

But it's not as though Blecker's some armchair pontificator to whom the condemned and capital punishment are black-and-white abstractions. Blecker has visited death row and spoken to its inhabitants. One such dark, odd-couple bromance between Blecker and a Shelbyville father who murdered his own children was the subject of a documentary, Robert Blecker Wants Me Dead. In it, a grudging respect is formed between the articulate murderer, Daryl Holton, and Blecker.

When Holton was executed in 2007, Blecker felt he needed to be nearby. He had the choice of standing outside the prison with anti-death penalty advocates, pro-death penalty advocates or the TV cameras. He ended up with the pro-death crowd. But when he said he thought Holton should die painlessly by lethal injection, he found himself on the receiving end of jeers.

So it's interesting to see him arguing in The Tennessean that lethal injection is flawed, in part, simply because it isn't painful enough. Apparently, even for the Old Testament guy, it's easier to wish a painful death upon abstractions than it is to a man you've spoken to and come to know. His tortured logic suggests that the clinical appearance of lethal injection looks too much like medical treatment and not enough like punishment, and that pain has effectively been separated from the punishment.

Yet he admits that it's likely that the anesthetic could wear off even as the paralyzing agent remains, giving the outward appearance of peace — when in fact the prisoner is suffering nothing but unregistered agony as he suffocates. Post-mortems have found insufficient amounts of anesthetic in the bodies of the executed, so it has undoubtedly happened. This is the subject of a state Supreme Court stay on four executions, including Stephen Michael West's, to determine if they can be put to death without this kind of suffering.

Pith understands The Tennessean's need for the opposing voice (see "Opposing-Quotes Dance"), but Blecker's doesn't translate well into reality. Pith doesn't know if Blecker has ever actually watched the executions he so vehemently advocates, but there's nothing peaceful about lethal injection. It's a gruesome spectacle, and if you see one and can be even remotely honest with yourself, you'll question the entire rationale behind killing in order to demonstrate that we don't condone killing. It degrades us all.

Secondly, the punishment is meted out too unreliably and too unevenly. Take Cameron Todd Willingham, the Texas man who was executed for setting the house fire that killed his daughters. Arson experts now agree that fire was accidental, not arson. And how about Bartlett's Gaile Owens. While other women convicted of similar crimes walked free, Gaile Owens was mere months from execution when she was saved by Gov. Phil Bredesen in July.

Sure, in a perfect world where each man and woman on death row is the worst of the worst and guilty as sin, we could talk to them like Blecker about their feelings and their sense of remorse, and then arrive at suitable punishments. And if anesthetic were dosed in sufficient amounts for each execution, lethal injection would be a painless death. But we don't live in that world.

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