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Longtime federal judge Michael Ponsor pens first novel

  • U.S. District Court Judge Michael Ponsor has written a novel, "The Hanging Judge."<br/><br/><br/><br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • U.S. District Court Judge Michael Ponsor has written a novel, "The Hanging Judge."<br/><br/><br/><br/><br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • U.S. District Court Judge Michael Ponsor has written a novel, "The Hanging Judge."<br/><br/><br/><br/><br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • Nancy L. Sykes. CAROL LOLLIS.
  • U.S. District Court Judge Michael Ponsor has written a novel, "The Hanging Judge."<br/><br/><br/><br/>KEVIN GUTTING

“This one was easy,” he said. “So, why not?”

It would prove to be more difficult than he anticipated, and it would be 40 years before his first novel would see print.

Good thing he had a legal career to fall back on in the meantime.

Ponsor, 66, is a sitting federal judge in the U.S. District Court in Springfield, a position he has held since being appointed by President Bill Clinton in 1994.

He said he is now “semi-retired” from his lifetime appointment. U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren is conducting interviews for his replacement, he said, and he’s cut back on his workload with plans to step down completely when his successor is appointed.

His novel, “The Hanging Judge,” was published at the end of April by Massachusetts Continuing Legal Education, a Boston nonprofit group that normally publishes educational material for lawyers.

Ponsor’s book is the first work of fiction published by the group and, as far as Ponsor knows, the first novel about a death penalty case written by a judge who has presided over a death penalty case.

Proceeds from the sale of the book will go to the Frank H. Freedman Scholarship Fund, which benefits lawyers who can demonstrate financial need to attend courses the group provides.

“I did a little dance around the room,” Ponsor said when he learned the organization had agreed to publish the novel. “I was ecstatic the book was going to see the light of day.”

Later this year, Ponsor said, the book will be published and distributed through Open Road Media, a publishing company specializing in digital publication.

Other authors published by Open Road include Stephen Coonts, Gloria Steinem and local writer Jane Yolen, according to its website.

Ponsor’s book is a fictional account of a federal death penalty case that involves a drug dealer accused of a double murder. The story is told from the viewpoints of several characters, including the judge who presides over the case, David Norcross.

While the story is fiction, Ponsor was able to draw from his experience as a judge, including presiding over the real-life case of Kristen Gilbert, who was convicted in 2001 of killing patients in her care at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Leeds.

He said the experience of presiding over that case had a “profound effect” on how he approached the book, and he was able to incorporate his own impressions and the issues involved in death penalty cases into the novel.

“Imagine yourself sitting in a room with a group of people who will be deciding whether one of the people sitting in that room will be deliberately killed,” Ponsor said. “The evidence is contested and there is a risk of mistake in both directions. A murderer could walk, or an innocent person could be executed and you could find yourself signing the execution order.

“The responsibility presses down on your shoulders like a sack of concrete every day. The risk of error is ever present,” he said. “Believe me, the experience penetrates deep.”

Gilbert was spared the death penalty after her conviction and is serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole.

Forty years ago, when Redbook magazine published Ponsor’s story “The Accident,” earning him $1,500, he decided to pursue writing as a career. He took a year off from law school to do so.

But after failing to have stories published elsewhere, it became clear to him that this wasn’t going to be a workable option. Ponsor said he “slunk” back into law school and continued his legal career, but kept writing on the side when time allowed.

That first story was about a young college student who collides with a frail old woman while running, hurting her badly. The main character is forced to face how we sometimes hurt others through our carelessness and self-involvement, Ponsor said.

Ponsor’s path to publication before “The Hanging Judge” includes two other novels that were finished but never published.

“You never get past the trying stage,” he said. “You just try more intelligently.”

Ponsor said he drew on his own experiences as a judge to create much of the story and atmosphere in the book.

He said he felt he had to simplify certain aspects of trial procedure, and he tried to not get bogged down in too much legal minutiae that could potentially turn off readers.

“This is not intended to be a textbook,” Ponsor said.

In most death penalty cases, Ponsor said, the defendant has the services of at least two attorneys. In the book, the accused, Moon Hudson, only has one. Acknowledging reality would have meant creating another character and could have slowed things down and created confusion, Ponsor said.

Likewise, the timeline in the book is shortened, Ponsor said. Normally, it takes federal death penalty cases about two years to go to trial. Hudson goes before Judge Norcross in a matter of months.

“The book itself simplifies the process,” he said.

Ponsor said he tried to be disciplined over the course of the seven years it took to finish the book, writing at his computer for several hours every Saturday and Sunday morning.

Ponsor was born and raised in Chicago, educated at Harvard, Yale and Oxford and now lives in Amherst with his wife, Nancy Coiner, a teacher.

He relocated to the Valley in the early 1980s after working in Boston for several years at various law firms.

He has three children from a previous marriage, two boys and a girl.

While many writers dislike the actual physical process of writing, Ponsor said he found it enjoyable for the most part.

“Seventy-five percent of the time, it feels good to spend a few hours writing,” he said. “The other 25 percent is a pure slog. You’re back in high school having to do trigonometry homework.”

While the story is fictitious, there are western Massachusetts touchstones scattered throughout. References to local landmarks like the Holyoke Range, Atkins Farms and the Fort restaurant in Springfield help establish the story firmly in the 413 area code. Even the surname of Ponsor’s protagonist, Norcross, is a sly nod to Amherst, where Ponsor used to have a private law practice. Norcross is the maiden name of revered Amherst poet Emily Dickinson's mother.

The book is also dedicated to the memories of Dominic Daley and James Halligan, two men who Ponsor said were “hanged by mistake” in Northampton on June 5, 1806. They were exonerated in 1984.

Once the manuscript was ready to be seen (“There was never a moment when I felt I had ‘finished,’ ” Ponsor said), he gave copies to several colleagues and local authors Tracy Kidder, Joe McGinniss and Jonathan Harr for their opinions and feedback.

“I received a great deal of support and quite an enthusiastic response,” Ponsor said.

The book is available through the Massachusetts Continuing Legal Education website now and will be commercially available later this year, Ponsor said.

Bob Dunn can be reached at bdunn@gazettenet.com.

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