The Hanging Judge
By Michael Ponsor
Open Road (2013)
When Justice Blackmun famously declared, “I no longer shall tinker with the machinery of death,” his decision was rooted not in abstract legal principle, but in the very human process by which the death penalty is imposed. “We hope, of course, that the defendant whose life is at risk will be represented by competent counsel — someone who is inspired by the awareness that a less than vigorous defense truly could have fatal consequences for the defendant. We hope that the attorney will … appear before a judge who is still committed to the protection of defendants’ rights. … [W]e hope that the prosecution, in urging the penalty of death, will have exercised its discretion wisely, free from bias, prejudice, or political motive, and will be humbled, rather than emboldened, by the awesome authority conferred by the state. But even if we can feel confident that these actors will fulfill their roles to the best of their human ability, our collective conscience will remain uneasy.” Callins v. Collins, 510 U.S. 1141, 1143, 1145 (1994) (Blackmun, J., dissenting).
The Hanging Judge is a riveting fictional account of a judge, defense lawyer, and other “actors” attempting — within their very human limitations — to manage a death penalty trial. The case is set in motion by a double homicide: a Puerto Rican gang member is shot and a stray bullet hits a white pediatric nurse. A witness identifies the shooter as Moon Hudson, an African-American former gang member turned college student. Massachusetts has no death penalty, but an ambitious U.S. attorney brings the case to federal court as a racketeering prosecution, and the government seeks the death penalty.
This well-written novel focuses largely on the unique perspective of the judge trying the case, terrain the author knows well: Michael Ponsor is a senior U.S. district judge who presided over a death penalty trial in 2000. (Disclosure: I clerked for Judge Ponsor in 2005-2006 and also read a very early draft of this book at the time.) While the trial in The Hanging Judge is very different from the capital trial over which Judge Ponsor presided (and about which he wrote a compelling nonfiction account), his experience inevitably informs the story’s details. Even the smallest moments are utterly recognizable, as for instance, when counsel must pause at sidebar to wait for the stenographer, or when, after being overruled at sidebar, the prosecutor attempts to telegraph to the jury that she is pleased with what just transpired.
David Norcross, the fictional judge at the center of it all, is a slightly hapless, well-intentioned sort. As the book starts, he is unhappily imposing a mandatory life sentence on a crack dealer and grimly estimating that in just two years on the bench he has sentenced defendants to more than one thousand years in prison. When the Hudson case descends on him his mood is no lighter; the pressure to conduct a perfect trial is palpable, but as a colleague remarks, keeping the case under control “will be like trying to cram a German shepherd in a cello case.” His personal life is equally precarious; recently widowed, he stumbles into a relationship with a “toothsome” professor of medieval and Renaissance literature.
Like the judge, defense attorney Bill Redpath feels the unique pressure of a capital case. Redpath is haunted by death, both those he has seen before and the very real possibility that Hudson will be put to death. Redpath is the one character deliberately modeled after a real individual: he is based on William Homans, Jr., a larger than life Boston lawyer among whose many storied achievements was persuading the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court to abolish the death penalty.
Interwoven with the fictional narrative is the true account of a death penalty prosecution in Massachusetts in the early 1800s, when two Irish Catholic immigrants were quickly convicted and hanged after a traveler was found dead near Springfield. While the comparison shows that there have been some obvious procedural improvements in death penalty trials in the last 200 years — for instance, counsel today would never be appointed just two days before trial — the paired narratives also suggest that human prejudice necessarily infects capital cases.
The ending of The Hanging Judge, while perhaps inevitable, is not entirely satisfactory. But it carefully illustrates the central dilemma of a system of capital punishment: can it be fairly administered or, as Justice Blackmun suggested, will it “remain fraught with arbitrariness, discrimination, caprice, and mistake”? Callins, 510 U.S.at 1144.
About the Reviewer
Emma Quinn-Judge practices criminal defense and civil litigation at Zalkind Duncan & Bernstein LLP in Boston, Mass.
The opinions expressed in reviews are those of the reviewers and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of NACDL.