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In 2000-2001, Judge Ponsor presided over the first death penalty case in Massachusetts in nearly 50 years, United States v. Gilbert. Gilbert’s trial marked only the third time that a federal capital case had gone to trial in a state without the death penalty. According to Ponsor, he felt a particularly heavy responsibility to ensure that both the government and the defense got a fair trial. In fact, in 2001, after the conclusion of the trial, Ponsor did something somewhat unusual for a judge; he wrote a lengthy editorial about the death penalty. He wrote: “[t]he simple question - not for me as a judge, but for all of us as citizens - is: Is the penalty worth the price?”

In 2013, Ponsor published his first novel, The Hanging Judge, a novel about a fictionalized death penalty case. Ponsor develops a compelling narrative to grapple with that very question. The book explores issues including the death penalty, mandatory sentencing, and racial bias, all against the backdrop of love and loss and how the complexities of individual lives intersect in communities and courtrooms. 

The book is a captivating and engaging read that can easily be adopted as part of a community read in colleges and law schools. Western New England University School of Law incorporated the book into orientation for first-year law students. This had all of the benefits of a community read; students had a shared experience, a common language, and a vehicle to discuss diverse perspectives to help navigate their entry into a new and challenging academic environment. The book also generated added enthusiasm for discussing an array of important social justice issues.

Recommended Citation

Beth D. Cohen and Pat K. Newcombe, The Hanging Judge by Michael A. Ponsor -- A Book Review: Capital Punishment -- Is the Death Penalty Worth the Price?, 62 CLEV. ST. L. REV. 493 (2014).