Tuesday, October 28, 2014

THE HANGING JUDGE by Michael Ponsor

Michael Ponsor

            The Hanging Judge is the debut novel by author Michael Ponsor, a federal judge for the United States District Court in Massachusetts. And, it is a remarkable first novel.

            The book begins with a gang related, drug related, drive by shooting that successfully killed its intended target. Unfortunately, it also killed an innocent bystander, a white nurse, mother of three, who was about to begin her shift, volunteering time at a nearby inner city clinic. The driver of the vehicle was apprehended by patrolman Alex Torricelli. When the driver entered into a plea agreement, he named Clarence Hudson as the shooter. Clarence “Moon” Hudson was a large black man with previous gang ties and a prior criminal record involving drugs. He was currently working a decent job, and he and his wife, Sandra – a young upper middle class black woman who was a student at the university – have a six month old daughter.

            As Massachusetts does not have the death penalty, the case was transferred to federal court – ostensibly as a violation of the RICO statute – where the death penalty is a punishment option. Hudson’s is the first death penalty case in Massachusetts in fifty years. David S. Norcross is the federal judge who presides over Hudson’s trial.

            Ponsor does an excellent job with his character development and his handling of the contentious death penalty issue. Through the various characters, we learn about the liberal academic viewpoint, the perspective of the victims’s families, the outlook of the defendant’s family and attorney, and, of course, the impact on the impartial judge. Ponsor also includes flashbacks to the real life Massachusetts murder case, and execution, of Dominic Daley and James Halligan, “hanged by mistake” in 1806.

I am not usually a fan of legal thrillers; as an attorney, I am often sidetracked in these books by the improper procedure, the erroneous judicial rulings, and the like. But, The Hanging Judge was spot on, and I loved it. I was especially ready to dislike the book as I was, at one time, a judicial law clerk to a federal judge. But, Ponsor’s fictionalization was so accurate that it left me feeling homesick. When Ponsor has the Chief Judge giving information to Norcross’s law clerks about “their judge”, I could immediately relate. Despite the passing of years, I still feel proprietary toward my judge.

            The Hanging Judge is a realistic, well written, remarkable legal thriller. It can be enjoyed at a superficial, quick read level. Or, it can be enjoyed with a little thought about the pros and cons of the death penalty. Or, it can be enjoyed on a much deeper level, comparing the Hudson case with the Daley and Halligan case and looking at the issue through the eyes of the various characters.

            The Hanging Judge is a wonderful book!


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