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by Michael Ponsor
Open Road, December 2013
376 pages
ISBN: 1480441945

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

David S. Norcross is a fairly new appointment to the Federal bench in Massachusetts. Widowed for several years, he lives alone with his dog. He has not been on the bench long enough to become either cynical or indifferent to those he sentences in the course of his duties, nor is he entirely comfortable with the restraints on his judgements that Congress has seen fit to impose, particularly in regard to mandatory minimum sentencing. "No discretion," he complains. "I'm not a judge. I'm an adding machine, for crying out loud." It is just plain bad luck that lands him with a Federal prosecution for a street shooting that, in addition to the intended target, killed a nurse bending down to pet a puppy. The Feds are determined to make this a capital offence in a state that has not seen a prosecution that might result in the death penalty for many years.

Like Norcross, Michael Ponsor is a sitting federal judge. He is at pains to assure readers that Norcross is not him and that the case over which his protagonist reluctantly presides does not resemble the death penalty case tried before him in his court. Still, it would appear that the fictional judge and the real one do share certain points in common and it is these that make this novel more intriguing than your average courtroom drama. Both are dubious, at best, about the wisdom of death sentences, and Ponsor interweaves an account of an early 19th century judicial double hanging of two innocent men as a reminder of how deeply ingrained the confusion between justice and revenge is in the US legal system. The men in that particular case were later pardoned by Michael Dukakis on the grounds that their prosecution had been infected by such religious and ethnic prejudice that it resulted in an unfair trial. Whether, of course, being pardoned after 180 years is much of a consolation to the executed is another question.

Commonly, in legal thrillers, the accused is not guilty. Not merely assumed to be, as the law demands, but actually so. Suspense is generated often in the courtroom by the defence attorney's ability to break down the testimony of corrupt or mistaken witnesses or, somewhat less often, by revelations of corruption that undermine the prosecution's case. The action in THE HANGING JUDGE for the most part is less flamboyant. The reader is not absolutely certain that the defendant is innocent. Yes, some witnesses are mistaken, others lying, but Ponsor's attention is on the random events that impact on the outcome of the trial. What affects a jury? How much does it matter who the foreman is? What are the risks to the accused of testifying or not testifying? Is a wrong verdict possible if the trial is well-regulated, the defendant well represented?

Judge Norcross comes across as a likeable and intelligent man and a fair judge, though not one, one suspects, destined for judicial glory. As this trial progresses, he falls in love with a woman of his own generation. As these things go, it is a well-handled affair, despite the "Hollywood-cute" way they meet. They grow close, become intimate, fall in love in a style suited to their maturity and status. Ponsor writes well, about the law and about people, far better, indeed, than might be anticipated in a debut novel written by a sitting judge.

Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal.

Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, December 2013

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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