Pontius Pilate was a Roman governor of Judea during the reign of Tiberius Caesar. The people of Jerusalem did not think very highly of him, and unfortunately the feeling was mutual. He had proven his distaste for the Jews by authorizing a raid of their Temple treasury in order to build an aqueduct into the city.*
The people of Jerusalem began to verbally fight against what they considered sacrilegious, and Pilate sent a regiment of Roman soldiers to quell the uprising. But rather than scaring the unarmed people into subjection, the soldiers killed a great number of them. This event created great tension between Pilate and the Jews. That tension also carried up into the Roman government.
As a representative of the Roman Empire, it was Pilate's responsibility to collect taxes and to keep the peace among the people. His decision to raid the treasury put both him and the Roman Empire at odds with the Jews, which in turn, did not grant him favor among the Roman officials. Pilate remained governor of Judea to maintain civil order, especially during religious festivals, such as Passover, when throngs of Jews would migrate into Jerusalem.
At one such occasion, the chief priests and officials brought Jesus of Nazareth before him. Pilate tried to pass Jesus off to be judged under the Jewish law, but the Jews were seeking the death penalty, a punishment that could only be carried out by the hands of Romans. If he were to go against their wishes, Pilate knew the people would start a revolt, which would jeopardize his standing with Roman authorities even further.
Pilate was in a difficult position. He ordered Jesus to be beaten, thinking it would appease the mob. But when Pilate brought him back out and presented him before the people, it was obvious that scourging was not sufficient enough for them. The mob began to shout for his crucifixion, stating that according to their law, someone who made themselves out to be the Son of God was worthy of death. This response stirred up great fear in Pilate. He demanded that Jesus tell him where he was from.
When Jesus did not respond, Pilate's tension grew. He attempted to exercise his authority over Jesus, saying that he had the power to either execute him or release him. But Jesus told Pilate that the only power he had over him was the power that was given to him from heaven. During this exchange, only for a moment, Pilate had a revelation of who Jesus was. He realized that Jesus was no ordinary man.
Although Pilate plainly stated that he found no fault with Jesus, the people shouted violently for his death. The fury of the rioters was greater than Pilate's power to control them.
Pilate is often thought of as a coward; one who did not have the personal integrity to stand up against the raging mobs. However, in a last attempt to communicate his disapproval of Jesus' execution, Pilate wrote the title, "Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews" in Hebrew, Greek and Latin to be hung above the cross."
There are those who come face to face with the truth, and though they recognize it, they also choose to reject it. Pilate believed that Jesus was innocent, and did not want the moral responsibility of condemning an innocent man. Although Pilate had the power to set Jesus free, his fear of insurrection prevented him from making the right moral choice.
Sources: *Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 18.3.2, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pontius_Pilate