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U.S. District Judge Michael Ponsor Delivers Lecture at Eastern

Published on March 14, 2016

U.S. District Judge Michael Ponsor Delivers Lecture at Eastern

U.S. District Judge Michael Ponsor discussed the Jekyll and Hyde faces of the U.S. justice system in a lecture at Eastern Connecticut State University on March 9. In his lecture he examined injustices in the court system since his appointment in 1984, and discussed the system’s conflicting roles as a protector of liberty and an instrument of excessive punishment.

“In history and in the world today equal protection under the law is in fact very rare. In most places, it has been and still is a joke, and a person can get very badly hurt for even suggesting it,” stated Ponsor. The United States incarcerates 500 people for every 100,000 U.S. residents. This is more than triple the 180 prisoners for every 100,000 people in 1984 when Ponsor was appointed. “This staggering increase in the number of people we lock up occurred on my watch, and I played a part in it. Our rates of incarceration now make us the number one prison warden in the world,” exclaimed Ponsor.

“Now I am not a friend of guns, particularly in the hands of felons. But what are we accomplishing by putting Mr. Colon into prison for 15 years and putting his two children in the position of growing up without a father?” asked Ponsor. He was discussing a case he handled where the defendant sold a firearm to a cooperating witness for $500 in 2010 and was arrested in 2011. “Fifteen years? Our magnificent legal system, the greatest product in my opinion of the human imagination, so often collapses into an instrument of torture and destruction,” said Ponsor.

There is currently more than 3,000 people on death row. More than 140 have been exonerated, 20 of which were freed based on recent DNA testing that conclusively demonstrated they were not the perpetrators of the crime they were sentenced for. “Can anyone honestly suggest that, with this number of innocent people barely escaping execution, that there have not been at least some innocent people for whom exoneration came too late or not at all?” asked Ponsor.

Ponsor described the correlation between a judge or jury’s decision and the defendant’s life circumstances—do they have kids, what is their age, and other potential mitigating factors. He compared two fictional cases—a 30-year-old unpleasant-looking man murdering someone with razors, versus a pleasant-looking 30-year-old woman killing patients with chemicals—and asked if the audience saw the possibility that the judge’s opinions would be skewed. “Should this modification of the facts have increased the likelihood of death?” asked Ponsor.

“Even at our most serious moments, we are tangled up in all kinds of distractions—big and small. Mixed in with the gold of the most magnificent products of our imagination, like our legal system, we will always find the mud and the blood and the comedy of human caprice, bias and fallibility,” concluded Ponsor.

Written by Anthony LaPenna

Categories: Criminology