NEW VOICES: Federal Judge Underscores the "Heavy Price" of the Death Penalty

In a recent interview, Judge Michael A. Ponsor, who presided over the first federal death penalty trial in Massachusetts in over 50 years, warned that the death penalty comes with a "heavy price" - the risk of executing innocent people: "A legal regime permitting capital punishment comes with a fairly heavy price....where there’s a death penalty innocent people will die. Sooner or later—we hope not too often—someone who didn’t commit the crime will be executed." In 2001, Judge Ponsor oversaw the capital trial of Kristen Gilbert, a nurse who was charged with killing some of her patients. Gilbert was ultimately found guilty and sentenced to life without parole. The judge said the trial made him question the whole process of death sentencing: "The most profound realization I took from Gilbert was that human beings getting together to decide whether someone should be executed, even when they are supervised by a judge, will make mistakes."

Ponsor recently wrote a novel, The Hanging Judge, that tells the fictional story of a capital trial in which the judge struggles to ensure the defendant receives a fair trial. The subplot of his book is the true story of two Irishmen who were wrongfully executed in 1806. "We like to console ourselves that the injustices of the past no longer occur in our country in the 21st century," the judge said. Yet the hanging of Dominick Daley and James Halligan, two innocent victims of virulent anti-Catholic bigotry in 1806, has its parallels today. The people executed are most often the friendless, targets of prejudice and fear...The defendant in my novel, Clarence 'Moon' Hudson, a young African-American man with a criminal record and an intimidating face, shares some of the same vulnerabilities Daley and Halligan suffered."

(M. Valencia, "Judge’s fictional account gives inside view of death penalty trial," Boston Globe, November 12, 2014). See New Voices and Innocence.