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Review – The Hanging Judge by Michael Ponsor

the hanging judge

In almost every trial he’d ever done, as a lawyer or as a judge, there came a moment in the testimony when the effort to re-create the past entered the Twilight Zone, when all the possible realities were implausible.

-The Hanging Judge, Michael Ponsor

Michael Ponsor, the author of The Hanging Judge, writes from a unique perspective in his debut novel. Ponsor is himself a sitting federal judge in Massachusetts, and he presided over the first death penalty case in Massachusetts in over fifty years. The emotional and messy plot of The Hanging Judge assumedly echoes his experience, although he insists the case is in the novel is, of course, fiction.

The Hanging Judge follows gangly, awkward federal judge David S. Norcross as he struggles through a debated and publicized death penalty case in Massachusetts. Ponsor writes from each character’s perspective as they are affected by the case: from the mother of the gang ruffian who drove the getaway car, to the overweight cop with wife woes. We learn about the case from the perspective of the wife of the former gang-banger arrested for the crime, and also from the Assistant U.S. Attorney prosecuting the crime who just wishes everyone in Massachusetts would stop mistaking her for Puerto Rican (she’s Cuban).

This jump in perspectives has a wonderfully humanizing effect on all the characters involved in the trial, and especially on the protagonist Judge Norcross himself. I can’t help but wonder if this wasn’t Ponsor’s intention in writing The Hanging Judge–to give us all a sort of pause and remind us that there actual men and women do these difficult jobs in criminal law, while others get caught up in this net of a legal system we turn to for entertainment.

The book drags when Ponsor strays from the story of Judge Norcross’s case and excerpts the story of two men wrongly tried and hanged in Massachusetts in 1806: Dominic Daley and James Halligan. Although I can understand the relevance of this Massachusetts death penalty debacle, and the point of interweaving the narrative history throughout the larger story, each piece of history was like a speed bump placed in the middle of the book.

At several times in The Hanging Judge, there is a sort of delirium expressed about trying to seek the truth regarding criminal events. As layers of conflicting motives and untruths are revealed in the case, in and out of the courtroom, it seems the truth is less important than the motivation behind the words spoken. I’ve actually picked up a few true crime books recently, and it will be interesting to see how this feeling translates into the documentation of actual court cases.

There is a memorable scene where Judge Norcross is invited to a dinner with a liberal professor, who heckles him about America’s legal system throughout the evening.  I’m sure this is something judges have to deal with in the real world, people being as difficult as they are. In a burst of frustration after ignoring the professor’s bait for the evening, Judge Norcross grabs the salt and the pepper shakers off the table and asks the professor if he could determine what happened if “‘Ms. Pepper says she saw Mr. Salt stab her boyfriend. There was a lot of confusion, but she’s positive it was him. Mr. Salt says he was home at the time…”  He has the sugar bowl and the creamer chime in as alibis for the salt. The professor admits he’d have no idea what happened.

After laying out the difficulties of the legal system in such stark terms (with condiments, no less!), one would hope the author and (let’s not forget) sitting Judge Ponsor would have some grand summary about America’s justice system to ease all of our fears. The Hanging Judge isn’t that sort of book, however. The message here is that justice is messy, fallible, and, above all, human.

Final thought:  What is a “hanging judge”?  From Wikipedia:

Hanging judge” is an unofficial term for a judge who has gained notoriety for handing down punishment by sentencing convicted criminals to death by hanging. More broadly, the term is applied to judges who have gained a reputation for imposing unusually harsh sentences, even in jurisdictions where the death penalty has been abolished. The term “hanging judge” is generally applied to officers of the court with mandates, as opposed to extralegal lynch law.

If you are interested in receiving a copy of the book for free, there is a Goodreads giveaway for 3 copies ending on January 7th.

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