Judicial Empathy and a Veteran Without a Home
The tale begins and ends with Pocahontas Cooley (photo here), whose very name lends a fictional tone to a true story of justice deferred. The travesty is the number of times the setting has been the courtroom of Superior Court Judge Ojetta Rogeriee Thompson, Rhode Island Senators Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse’s pick to fill a vacancy in the first U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The case itself defies all reason, but the explanation could be precisely the judicial empathy for “underprivileged” groups on which President Barack Obama has placed such emphasis.
The person who is actually disadvantaged in the situation is 52-year-old Paul Kelly, Navy Reserve Boatswain’s Mate First Class. Since July 2007, Ms. Cooley has refused to leave his house in Exeter, Rhode Island, or to allow him to enter it. In the hectic months before Kelly was deployed to Kuwait as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom, Judge Thompson stayed an eviction order from a district court and essentially handed Cooley a rent-free home until the owner’s return from a theater of war, despite the availability of his brother to act as power of attorney.
That wasn’t enough for Pocahontas. According to Mr. Kelly, she took the opportunity of access to his possessions and files to forge documents, order heating oil in his name, reopen a credit card for her own use, make withdrawals from his bank account, and arrange for insulation work to be done on the house by South County Community Action Agency, a non-profit provider of services for economically disadvantaged Rhode Islanders. At the request of Paul’s brother, Thompson ordered Cooley to cease and desist such activities. At no point, however, did the judge see fit to change the housing arrangements, and Attorney General Patrick Lynch’s office has postponed prosecution of related charges until the judge has ruled on the cases before her.
In Kuwait, Paul Kelly strove to maintain his habitually positive attitude, even as he received notices about delinquent payments on accounts that he thought he had suspended before he left, and even when his commanding officer pulled him off watch duty to mention the scene that his “wife” had caused trying to retrieve his paycheck from the Navy base back in Newport, RI. Fortunately, base personnel were able to determine within minutes what Ojetta Rogeriee Thompson has been mulling for over a year: that Mr. Kelly is not married.
In fact, Paul, a submarine rigger by profession, had been sharing his country-living bachelor pad with only his dogs when his ex-girlfriend Pocahontas caught him preparing to head to Norfolk, Virginia, for processing prior to deployment. She lied about having been kicked out of her mother’s house, and still considering her a friend, he told her she could stay for a few days while he was away. But only a few days; his niece was going to move into the house while he was overseas.
Upon his return the next week, Paul found Pocahontas thoroughly at home. She declared the house to be hers and prepared to tell the Rhode Island judiciary that she was his common-law wife. Although disbelieving her outlandish insinuations of murder attempts from her “husband,” Superior Court granted her request for a restraining order against harassment. When Mr. Kelly arrived on his property to collect clothes and other items for his tour of duty, he found all of his possessions in the barn.
And when he finally had his day in court, in October 2008, he found the woman whose 1998 personal ad in the Providence Journal claimed a desire for an “honest relationship” to be adept at manipulating the system. Her first ploy was to demand thirteen subpoenas for information — some of which actually proved to support the case against her, and all of which Judge Thompson granted at taxpayer expense. During one subsequent appearance in court, Cooley insisted that she was awaiting subpoenaed information from the Pentagon, a clear impossibility. At other times, she challenged the reality of Kelly’s deployment.
In December, she had the good fortune to fall on the way into the courthouse. In the intervening months, Ms. Cooley has appeared in court on a regular basis, each time finding ways to err in her attempts to prove that she is not physically capable of a hearing. While granting continuance after continuance, the judge has provided Cooley with further instructions on acquiring the proper doctor’s note.
Meanwhile, Mr. Kelly is living in his sister’s basement (without his dogs), awaiting his next chance, on May 29, to receive a hearing date at last. Judge Thompson rotates out of the county at the end of June, at which point she may either take the case with her or leave it for one of her peers — one more whim over which Kelly is powerless. Even more so is Thompson’s potential elevation to federal court a variable in his fate.
As for Pocahontas Cooley, the Internet may be catching up with her. Two pieces about the situation by Providence Journal columnist Bob Kerr have brought Kelly and his lawyer, Patrick McKinney, into contact with people from her past, some of whom find his story eerily familiar. (See the last comment here.) A few months ago, searches for Cooley’s name turned up mainly announcements of her art exhibitions — one of them in the public offices of the City of Providence, which recently named a school after her politically involved late father.
Whereas episodes in her life before she found Paul Kelly seemed apt to fade away in the memories of individuals, permitting sequels with new characters, the worldwide public record online will now preserve a cautionary tale of political correctness, with the judge, the veteran, and the Indian princess illustrating the injustice of targeted empathy from the bench.