MICHAEL PONSOR ’69: Judge & Novelist

April 29th, 20146:31 am @


When Michael Ponsor ‘69 arrived at Pembroke as a Rhodes Scholar, fresh out of Harvard, his plan was to become a medievalist and a novelist. Some 45 years and a distinguished legal career later, he has returned to the youthful ambition from which he was diverted with the publication last year of his first novel, a legal thriller, The Hanging Judge, now on multiple New York Times bestseller lists.

The Hanging Judge, which has been widely acclaimed, is based upon a death penalty case over which he presided over as a Federal Judge in Springfield Massachusetts. Critic and novelist Anita Shreve praised Ponsor’s book as, “that rare gem: a crackling court procedural with authentic characters and beautiful prose.”

"The Hanging Judge" by Michael Posner '67

“The Hanging Judge” by Michael Posner ’67

“It was the first death penalty case tried in Massachusetts in over 50 years, and was the most profound professional and personal experiences of my career,” Ponsor recently told The North American Pembrokian. “Thirty people in a room to determine whether a person should be executed.”

“The novel allowed me to convey the moral, spiritual, and emotional atmosphere of a capital case at a level that cannot be reached in non-fiction,” Ponsor says.

After a five month trial, the jury in the case, U.S. v. Gilbert, found the defendant guilty but declined to impose the death penalty.

“I’m a death penalty skeptic,” Ponsor says. “I do not think we want a judge who is a death penalty enthusiast. If you are going to have the death penalty, we are going to have to accept that innocent people will be executed. Humans are imperfect. The process is imperfect.”

The Pembroke in which Ponsor matriculated in Michelmas 1969 was far different than the Pembroke new Freshers experience today. There were no women. The gate closed at midnight. Students were guaranteed a room in College only in their first year.

One of Ponsor’s tutors at Pembroke was the late David Fleeman, the great Johnson scholar and former Pembroke Vice-Master. Another was Douglas Gray, the famous medievalist who went on to become J.R.R. Tolkien Professor of English Literature and Language and Professorial Fellow at LMH.  Both scholars continue to influence Ponsor’s life – and his writing – today.

Michael Ponsor--Pembroke '67

Michael Ponsor–Pembroke ’67

“I was permanently influenced by my two years at Pembroke,” says Ponsor. “Beowulf. Piers Plowman. The great medieval literature continues to resonate in my life and my book.” One of the principal characters of The Hanging Judge, the romantic interest of the novel’s judge, is herself a medievalist. “All that reservation of ardor for English literature was seasoned and further inflamed by the work I did at Pembroke. That passion and heat for English literature provided me with much of the energy to write the book.”

The Hanging Judge is not Ponsor’s first novel. While a student at Pembroke, Ponsor wrote a novel which was not published.

When Ponsor left Pembroke after receiving his M.A. in 1971, the Vietnam War was still raging. He was accepted at Yale law school, from which he graduated in 1975. After two years as a federal prosecutor in Boston, Ponsor moved to the much smaller city of Springfield, Massachusetts, and to the private practice of law. “I wanted to be Atticus Finch,” he says, referring to the beloved small town lawyer in Harper Lee’s novel, To Kill a Mockingbird.” President Clinton appointed Ponsor as the Federal District Judge for Western Massachusetts in 1994. He assumed Senior Status in 2011.

“I have been writing my whole life. I intend to keep writing,” says Ponsor.  His status as a Senior Judge means that that he will continue to sit as a judge part time, but have more time to write and travel with his wife, Nancy. “I am already 80 pages into my next novel,” Ponsor says.

Stay tuned!