Monday, December 30, 2013

‘The Hanging Judge,’ by Michael Ponsor

by Dennis Drabelle)

Hear ye, hear ye. All draw near for a novelty: a mystery whose main character is a federal district judge, written by one of the tribe. Michael Ponsor was appointed to the bench in western Massachusetts in 1994 by President Bill Clinton. “The Hanging Judge” is his first novel, and Ponsor is a talent to watch.

The author’s counterpart in “The Hanging Judge” is David Norcross, a hard-working jurist with serious qualms about the death penalty. And wouldn’t you know it — Norcross gets assigned to a case in which federal prosecutors, under pressure from their superiors at the Justice Department in Washington, are determined not just to convict the accused, but to put him to death.

He is Clarence “Moon” Hudson, a man with a past that includes gang membership and drug dealing. Now happily married, Hudson seems the very model of a reformed ex-con. So when he comes under suspicion for a gang killing and the police respond by breaking into his house and terrorizing him and his wife, the reader recoils — nobody should be treated this way, but Moon in particular ought to get a break. The guy informing on him is the not-so-trustworthy gang member who drove the getaway car, and the guy’s uncle would otherwise be the prime suspect, but the feds throw the book at Moon anyway.

As the case lands on his docket, Judge Norcross, a widower, has the delightful experience of being fixed up on a blind date that clicks. He and a sexy divorcee named Claire take endearingly awkward steps toward a relationship, and not even an egregious misstep — Claire thoughtlessly shares a confidence about the case with a mutual friend who leaks it — can derail their love affair.

Good for Norcross because the trial turns out to be an ordeal, for him and everybody else caught up in it. Ponsor excels at conveying the nuances that can underlie judicial rulings and legal strategies. In this case, for example, the defense has to consider the potential harm from disclosing Moon’s criminal record (he served time for his drug dealing). The rule is that the prosecution can’t introduce or even refer to a criminal defendant’s conviction because it might prejudice the jury against him.

But there is an exception: If the defendant takes the stand, putting his veracity on the line, the prosecution is entitled to use the “prior” to discredit him. This puts Moon in an agonizing dilemma. To keep his past from the jury, he must decline to speak up for himself, but he can’t stand the idea of having his fate decided without a word from him.

As for the judge, while giving Claire an after-hours tour of the courtroom, he complains succinctly about the burdens of a capital case: “In my whole life, I’ve never done anything this hard. . . . If I exclude testimony incorrectly, the government may be unfairly pinched, and a killer could go free. But if I mistakenly admit evidence or instruct the jury incorrectly, this human being here could die of a botched trial.”

Let the record reflect a criticism or two. A subplot involving a crazy old lady who keeps bombarding the judge with wacko-bird petitions and interrupting his trials strikes me as one complication too many. (On the other hand, a running account of a miscarriage of justice in the same region during the early 19th century is both unobtrusive and fascinating.) And after the jury delivers its verdict, Moon’s comment to his wife borders on authorial cheating. It’s designed to throw the reader off the scent, but it’s so cunningly worded as to have the opposite effect. On the whole, though, “The Hanging Judge” is that rarity: a story that grips the reader even as it teaches some fine points of criminal procedure.

Postscript: The Washington area is so replete with lawyers, some of whom may be toying with writing legal thrillers themselves, that it seems appropriate to add a quote from Judge Ponsor on what those wannabes might be letting themselves in for: “I recently wrote an 80-page opinion. . . . It took me about five full days to do it properly, which is a very long time for a trial judge. . . . On the other hand, eighty pages of publishable fiction, say a novella, would require two or three months of concentrated effort at least, probably more, for the piece to be done even marginally well.”

Drabelle is the mysteries editor of Book World.


By Michael Ponsor

Open Road. 478 pp. Paperback, $16.99