What Do You Do When the Evidence Is Stacked Against You?

    In Michael Ponsor’s latest legal thriller, Judge Norcross will have to try a difficult case while dealing with personal tragedy.

    Judge David Norcross is no stranger to tough cases. But in the midst of a family tragedy, a shocking trial begins. 

    Professor Sidney Cranmer stands accused of a heinous crime: child pornography. Though Cranmer insists the damning materials uncovered by the FBI are not his, the case against him appears airtight. Judge Norcross is assigned to the trial—which is complicated by the fact that Norcross's girlfriend Claire is a professor in the same department as Cranmer, and is convinced of the professor’s innocence. 

    Indeed, Norcross's personal life is just as troubled as his professional life. When the judge gets word that his brother Ray, the U.S. Secretary of Commerce, has died in a plane crash, he’s left to care for his two young nieces. But what he doesn’t know is that a child predator is targeting his new family, preparing to strike at any moment. 

    Read on for an excerpt of The One-Eyed Judge and then download the book.

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    The One-Eyed Judge

    By Michael Ponsor

    The One-Eyed Judge

    By Michael Ponsor

    As he scrutinized the defendant, Judge Norcross found himself beginning to worry.

    “The government, Mr. Cranmer … Professor Cranmer, are you with us?”

    Cranmer was slumped, motionless, staring blankly into his lap like a crash-test dummy after the collision. Norcross tilted his head to one side to try for a better look at the guy. Defendants in child pornography cases were a high risk for suicide. Should he order a psychiatric evaluation? The defense wasn’t seeking one. He’d have Erik swat up a memo on the circumstances that would justify having someone like Cranmer examined on the court’s own initiative. Two of his defendants had died while charges were pending against them, one of AIDS and one in a carjacking. He didn’t want another fatality, certainly not one where the defendant took his own life.

    Death, indeed, seemed to be everywhere. He hadn’t known Ray’s wife, Sheila, very well. She and Ray had met in Madison after he’d left the Midwest for his Peace Corps stint in Kenya and then law school. Little bits of things about her stuck in his mind. She was a late only child whose parents had passed away years ago. She liked flowers in the house. She and Norcross’s wife, Faye, had never clicked. Sheila had a routine, each time he met her, of putting a hand on his shoulder and kissing him quickly on the cheek, then backing up, looking him in the eye, and smiling. The gesture felt practiced, the act of a politician’s wife, but it might have just meant she was shy. He and Sheila had been related by marriage for almost 20 years, but he couldn’t recall even one phrase of any conversation they’d shared. What on earth was he going to say to her children?

    These thoughts flickered through Norcross’s mind in less than a second while Cranmer finally woke up to the fact that the judge had spoken to him. The professor twitched and cranked himself upright. “Yes, Your Honor. I’m with you. Sorry.”

    “Good. The government takes the position that you should be detained pending your trial, which may be some months from now. Ms. Ames, have you gone over this with your client?”

    “Yes, Judge.” She stood and shook her head wearily. “And it’s cuckoo. My client’s, you know, an English teacher. He’s lived in western Massachusetts for more than 30 years. He’s no threat to anyone, and he’s not going anywhere. We’re happy to post his house, which has no liens, if you feel it’s necessary. Brother counsel over there has lost his marbles.”

    But Campanella was already on the move, shifting from counsel table to the podium in the well of the court, buttoning his suit jacket and quickly adjusting his tie. He didn’t twitch at the “marbles” dig or even deign to glance at Attorney Ames.

    “Your Honor, if I might be heard?”

    “Proceed. Ms. Ames, have a seat, please. My time is limited this morning, Mr. Campanella. I can give this matter about twenty minutes.”

    Campanella positioned his yellow pad in front him. The top of his bald head caught the ceiling lights. “Okay. First, let’s look at the weight of the evidence, okay? It’s overwhelming. The case is not triable, and sister counsel knows it. Getting a conviction in this case will be child’s play. The defendant has been participating for at least the past month, probably longer, in a disgusting ...”

    Judge Norcross interrupted. “You’re talking about child’s play? In a pornography case?” Campanella stopped abruptly. His car was already in the ditch. He glanced back at Patterson.

    The top of his head turned pink. “I’m sorry, Your Honor. That was unintentional.”

    “It happens. Proceed.”

    Campanella consulted his notes, backed onto the highway, and pressed down on the gas. “The defendant has been participating for several weeks, probably longer, in a notorious chat room, the so-called Candyman E-Group, used by pedophiles to discuss fantasies about child sex abuse and exchange pornography.” Campanella flipped a page and looked up at the bench, dropping his voice. The change in tone conveyed the feel of an ad-lib, but it obviously wasn’t. Norcross could picture Campanella practicing it in his office.

    “Actually, I shouldn’t say fantasies, because based on some of that man’s”—Campanella pivoted in the same transparently rehearsed way and pointed at the defendant—“comments, he may have actually abused children.” Then Campanella returned his gaze judge. “We know from his own words that he’d very much like to. Your Honor has the transcripts of some of his conversations attached to the government’s sealed motion. Defendant appears under his chat-room code name ‘Luv2look.’ At one point, he brags about molesting his niece. I quote, ‘I love to rip her little diaper off, and stick my—’”

    “I’ve seen the transcripts, Mr. Campanella. You don’t have to quote them.”

    This was going to be Page One already. Too much lurid pretrial publicity, and he’d never be able to piece together a neutral jury. Besides, it was piling on, which reminded him of Ray.

    Judge Norcross felt a plunge in his stomach at the possibility that his brother’s aggressive, buccaneer spirit might pass from the world entirely. The man was not easy, but he was rooted in Norcross’s heart. What would happen to the girls? And how would his father, already weighed down with his mother’s illness, ever survive this new blow?

    Campanella had paused and was looking up at the judge, stroking his goatee.

    “Okay,” he said uncertainly. He’d clearly been relishing the prospect of two or three nauseating quotes. He flipped two pages of his yellow pad and soldiered on. “Very good.” He took a deep breath and exhaled. “Okay. Then there’s the DVD itself. Which he personally ordered in response to a flyer sent out by the FBI as part of its ‘Window Pane’ sting. The title of the video, which includes the phrase ‘Playing Doctor,’ is too disgusting to repeat in full. I assume Your Honor has seen it? The video was purchased with the defendant’s MasterCard, including both the number, expiration date, and the security code.” Campanella glanced back at Patterson to confirm this. The agent, without expression, nodded. “Okay.” Campanella paused and looked down at his notes. “When the agents arrived to execute the search warrant? The defendant gave a voluntary statement essentially confessing to the crime, admitting that he ordered the video, and confirming that it was his.” Campanella gave the judge a full blast of eye contact. “I assume Your Honor has viewed the video in its entirety?”

    Norcross was not going to be pushed. He leaned forward and returned Campanella’s stare. “I have reviewed all the material the government has submitted.”

    “Respectfully, has Your Honor viewed the last four minutes, where—”

    “Mr. Campanella,” Judge Norcross interrupted, tapping the bench with the butt of his pen. “I just told you I have reviewed all the material.”

    This was mostly true. The court of appeals had made it clear that a judge was required, before issuing a search or arrest warrant in these cases, to actually look at the targeted pornography. Norcross, however, did not interpret this precedent as binding him to sit and watch the entire ghastly DVD—only enough to get the gist. If Campanella was concerned that Norcross had not had his stomach turned or his heart wrenched, he didn’t need to worry.

    “Let’s move on. What can you tell me about the potential penalty the defendant is facing?”

    one-eyed judge
    Photo Credit: Jeffrey Beall / Flickr (CC)

    “Fine.” Campanella looked down and flapped another page. “It’s, Your Honor, it’s enormous—basically life, given the defendant’s age. Calculation of the sentencing guidelines will include enhancements for use of a computer, number of images, depictions of sadomasochistic conduct, and images of prepubescent children. We estimate that with these adjustments, the applicable guideline range will be two hundred and ten to two hundred and seventy-six months, roughly eighteen to twenty-three years, with a minimum mandatory sentence of at least five years, lifetime supervised release, and a requirement that he maintain registration as a child sex offender for life.”

    At the periphery of his vision, Norcross could see that Campanella’s words were landing on Cranmer like repeated blows over the head. The defendant seemed to be slipping lower in his chair each time Campanella flicked a hand at him. It was hard to imagine that a person would respond this way if he were innocent. The guidelines range was obviously too high, but the sentence would almost certainly come in well above the minimum five years. Hasta la vista, Professor Cranmer.

    The defendant would likely die before he finished his sentence. A colleague in Boston had once sentenced an aged mobster who protested that he would be in his grave before he could serve out his lengthy prison term. “Just do the best you can,” the colleague had replied. “Just do the best you can.” Even if Claire eventually accepted the truth that her friend was guilty, which she might not, the severity of his sentence would break her heart.

    The thought of Claire’s distress made Norcross think once more of how much he needed to speak to her, to get her help about what he should say to his nieces. Would they cry? Of course, they would cry. Would he? Claire was the only person on earth he could talk to about this.

    He knew Lindsay, the older girl, a little. They’d had some contact when she’d briefly attended nearby Deerfield Academy, but she’d been a poor fit for boarding school and had returned to Washington after a semester. An essay she’d written condemning the death penalty had gotten into the newspapers during his capital trial. Her few months in western Massachusetts hadn’t brought them close. Jordan, whom he’d only seen at occasional family holidays, had so far been too young for much conversation. Some years back, one Thanksgiving at Ray’s when Jordan had been a toddler, she’d hopped up into his lap to watch a football game. He’d enjoyed feeling her curled warmly against his chest, but she’d gotten bored and hopped down after a few minutes. How would he manage to make a home for these girls, even temporarily, if they needed a place to stay while Ray recovered? And what if Ray didn’t recover? Norcross didn’t even know what they ate for breakfast.

    Campanella kept rattling along. His argument regarding the defendant’s supposed dangerousness was feeble. The pretrial services report informed the judge that Cranmer was sixty-eight years old, with no prior criminal record of any kind, and had been living with his mother. In Norcross’s experience, all child abusers looked at child pornography, but relatively few people who looked at child pornography ever laid their hands on actual children. Like this soggy morsel, they mostly just “loved to look.” Beyond the pornography itself, which was bad enough, the record so far offered no evidence that the professor would do anything to hurt anyone, or cause any sort of problem, if he were released pending trial.

    The risk-of-flight argument was stronger. If the defendant stuck around to be convicted, his life would basically be over, except in the very unlikely event that he was found not guilty, and defendants rarely beat child pornography charges. Under the circumstances, who wouldn’t think about heading for the hills? He certainly would, especially if he knew that certain European countries would not extradite for this class of offense.

    Linda Ames, however, seemed unfazed by Campanella’s rhetoric, looking at him with a half smile that suggested she was about to burst into laughter, totally unimpressed. She was good, but what would she come up with?

    “Thank you, Mr. Campanella.” The tone of Judge Norcross’s voice should have made it clear that it was time for Campanella to sit down. He’d scored all the points he was going to score, and he was in fairly good shape. Unfortunately, he lacked the experience to know when to stop.

    Want to keep reading? Download the book.

    The One-Eyed Judge

    By Michael Ponsor

    This post is sponsored by Open Road Media. Thank you for supporting our partners, who make it possible for Murder & Mayhem to continue publishing the mystery and thriller stories you love.

    Photo: Jeffrey Beall / Flickr (CC


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