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The Hanging Judge: A Novel by Michael Ponsor
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The Hanging Judge: A Novel

by Michael Ponsor

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Judge David Norcross is young and a little new as a federal judge in Springfield. He has his work cut out for him when a gang shooting in Holyoke gets tried in his court, and the accused may face the death penalty if found guilty.

I don't read a lot of courtroom thrillers, but I'm the daughter of a lawyer and can say the courtroom scenes were some of the most believable I've read - and you'd hope they'd be authentic, because the author is a judge. The tension of the case is palpable, and the stakes are high. Readers know more than any character because the points of view shift between several characters. This meant I didn't really feel connected to any one, but it was an entertaining read and kept me wondering what would happen. The local setting meant I could picture a lot of the locations, and interspersed with the trial was an account of an historical trial in Northampton of two Irishmen accused of killing Marcus Lyon in the 1800s in Wilbraham, Massachusetts. ( )
  bell7 | Mar 27, 2017 |
A hanging judge might be one who is prone to favor capital punishment or one whose is undecided (i.e., hanging) on the appropriateness of the death penalty. Ponsor—himself a judge who has presided over a death penalty case—does an excellent job of presenting the legal complexities of these proceedings and the nuances in how these decisions are made. His intent is to present the facts, but not to provide an opinion. “Here is how a death penalty trial actually works. Now we can talk.”

His protagonist is Judge David Norcross, an amiable guy who is driven to conduct a fair trial that would be unassailable from a legal perspective. His thoughts on the morality of capital punishment are never revealed, but his focus on the overriding importance of fairness in death penalty cases is obvious. Ponsor’s decision to write a legal thriller from the perspective of a judge certainly is unusual and gives him the opportunity to highlight subtle legal issues that often are not prominent in Grisham or Thurow, where action seems more important. The downside to this decision is a plot that seems formulaic and slow. In fact, the only action takes place in the first few pages when a drive-by shooting takes the life or a gang-banger and an innocent bystander. An off duty cop chases down the driver but does not manage to get the shooter.

The bulk of the novel consists of character development and legal maneuvering. Although interesting, it does not much of a thriller make. Ponsor tries to show that the players in his drama are real people who are fallible. This, along with the various legal machinations, is intellectually interesting, but falls short of the usual fare offered in thrillers.

The defendant, Clarence “Moon” Hudson, is a young African-American man with a criminal past. He represents an intimidating presence in the courtroom, set in Western Massachusetts, a place where young Black men are in the minority and a bit scary. Ponsor clearly attempts to emphasize the importance of community prejudice on death penalty decisions by introducing the true story of Dominick Daley and James Halligan, two innocent Irish immigrants who were executed in this same community in 1806 for a murder where the evidence consisted of little more than the testimony of a young boy, but a time and place where anti-Catholic bigotry was quite common.

Most of characters in the novel seem to be clichés of the genre. Bill Redpath is an empathetic but curmudgeonly defense attorney. The Hispanic female defense attorney is highly competent and driven to get a conviction. Clare Lindemann is a sexy divorcee who has an affair with the judge and introduces the issue of how easy it is for loose talk to prejudice a jury. We also have the usual types who inhabit these novels: helpful industrious law clerks, cops who are tempted to get a conviction, gang members and other criminal types who have their own agendas, dubious witnesses who either lie or misremember what they saw and even a crazy old lady who offers comic relief.

Ponsor’s strength clearly is his insider knowledge of the nuances that can underlie judicial rulings and the legal strategies that are employed by both parties. He depicts these exceedingly well: testimony the jury can and cannot hear; the need to have the stenographer present at sidebar conferences; attempts by the lawyers to telegraph information to the jury through subtle words and body language, the importance of jury selection. Through these subtleties, Ponsor conveys the idea that these proceedings are often more about procedure, politics and theatrics than innocence and guilt and a prime function of the judge is to mitigate these effects on the decision.

In an interview, Ponsor stated that “A legal regime permitting capital punishment comes with a fairly heavy price. I wanted people to know this.” The burden is tremendous because innocent people can and do die (consider the executions of Daly and Halligan) while guilty people may go free. The ending of the novel, although unsatisfying from a storytelling perspective, does raise well the issue of fallibility. ( )
  ozzer | Feb 11, 2016 |
This was very well written. I enjoyed the book very much. It was about a man Clarence " Moon" Hudson who was being tried in federal court for the murder of two people. I won't go into the logistics of the trial but the author did an excellent job touching on everyone's life. He kept what could have been a dull book very interesting. I do hate how the prosecution side played so dirty to win their case. I am not saying that they won only that they didn't play fair. It really made me angry. I was happy, but not happy with the ending of the book. I think if you read this you may understand my feeling. But overall good read. ( )
  bwhitner | Feb 20, 2015 |
I read quite a bit of nonfiction on death penalty cases, and I was looking forward to a fictional take from an author who is also a judge. Unfortunately, this book was a major disappointment for me.

First, I want to say Michael Ponsor does an exceptional job of showing the problems within our court system. If you're unfamiliar with the intricate web we call justice, which is often more about procedure and politics than innocence and guilt, then this will be an eye-opening read.

One problem I had came with characterization. We have at least a half-dozen viewpoint characters, but none of them stand out as original or interesting people. Judge David Norcross, who is supposed to be the main character, is just one in an ever-revolving line. He doesn't feel like a lead character, especially through the first third or so of the book. Most of the characters feel forced and predictable, though I did love the defense attorney.

Where the book really falls apart for me is in the storytelling. Ponsor meanders through, giving us loads of extraneous information. Very little of relevance happens in the first half of the book. If you're looking for a courtroom drama, that aspect doesn't even begin until the second half. The first half can't really be called a crime story, as the interactions are more about personal drama than the crime itself. Large sections are dedicated to characters who are secondary at best. While I appreciate that Ponsor is trying to show us the lives of all the people involved, this winds up pulling us away from the important characters and our emotional connection suffers. In many ways, we are told rather than shown and I couldn't fall into the story.

This book is divided into four parts. At the end of each section, we find a short chapter about a real death penalty case that took place in the early 1800s. Ponsor attempts to tie that real case into his fictional characters' current world and it just doesn't work. The historical sections don't blend into the story, but stand isolated. I do think there is a compelling story in that old case, though perhaps it should be written on its own either as historical fiction or true crime.

In the end, I struggled to get through this weighty book. Michael Ponsor's attempt is admirable but, for me, is in need of a major edit. ( )
  Darcia | Jul 6, 2014 |
Full review here: The Steadfast Reader - The Hanging Judge

I'm going to start by saying something about the author, if Goodreads pulls it down I'll try again.

Judge Ponsor currently sits on the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Massachusetts, as a burgeoning, bright-eyed young attorney, this gives me pause. I understand that Judge Ponsor makes it clear in the forward of the book that fictional Judge Norcross is not him and the views in the novel in no way necessarily reflect his own thoughts on the death penalty. I also know it's incredibly unlikely that he'll ever hear a death penalty case again. I guess a novel is a more appropriate way to share the 'insider information' about a federal death penalty case for a sitting federal judge than a memoir... but why not a pen name? I don't know, perhaps it's just a silly feeling, but like I said it did give me pause.

Okay. The novel. Well, it's a better legal drama than some of the new fiction that John Grisham is churning out these days. I felt like Judge Norcross's romantic relationship with Claire was extraneous, I suppose it did add a third dimension of the character, it's an avenue to show that judges are people too, people with incredibly difficult and often thankless jobs, but the whole thing felt a bit out of place.

I appreciated the attempts to humanize the lawyers on both sides of the case. The prosecutor is 1. just doing her job, and 2. Wants to see justice for the family who have lost a loved one and the defense attorney truly doesn't believe in the death penalty, so it's nice to see lawyers portrayed as so human.

The ending feels incredibly contrived, it's almost as if the author was just tired of writing and wanted to wrap it up. It goes from BIG MESSY LEGAL BATTLE to nice neat package in the space of a few chapters.

Overall, this is a decent read if you're looking for some sort of legal thriller, but it's never going to be To Kill a Mockingbird or even The Firm.

This review is based on an advance review copy supplied through NetGalley by the publisher ( )
  steadfastreader | Mar 18, 2014 |
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"When a drive-by shooting in Holyoke, Massachusetts, claims the lives of a Puerto Rican drug dealer and a hockey mom volunteering at an inner-city clinic, the police arrest a rival gang member. With no death penalty in Massachusetts, the US attorney shifts the double homicide out of state jurisdiction into federal court so that he can seek a death sentence. The Honorable David S. Norcross, with only two years on the bench, now presides over the first death penalty case in the state in decades. He must referee the clash of an ambitious female prosecutor and a brilliant veteran defense attorney in a high-stress environment of community outrage, media pressure, vengeful gang members, and a romantic entanglement that threatens to capsize his trial--not to mention the most dangerous force of all: the unexpected"--Publisher.… (more)

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