Mary, Mary

Some have felt her wrath. Others call her kindhearted and fair. Even as she presides over some of the state’s most controversial cases, Judge Mary Lisi is a bundle of contradictions.

Photograph by Ira Kerns

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Yvonne Manuel stands before Judge Mary Lisi in U.S. District Court, looking small and lost in the enormous, ornate Providence courtroom where Lisi presides.She knows it was wrong to use someone else’s social security number, Manuel tells Lisi.

“I want to make restitution,” Manuel says, her voice sounding thin and high in the cavernous courtroom.

“I’m definitely sorry for everything I’ve done,” she adds, fighting back tears.

From behind a massive oak bench several yards away, Lisi sees a pale woman in a tan pantsuit who has never had an easy time in life. First, there was a difficult childhood. Then came mental health and substance abuse issues. Still, the single mother has always worked hard to support herself and her teenage daughter, even finding time to volunteer at a rape crisis center and to be active in her church. A mother herself, Lisi can relate to the challenges Manuel faces. Working moms supposedly “have it all,” but that privilege typically comes with a hefty price tag.

Are they doing their homework? Did they make it to the dentist on time? Did they remember to return their library books?

“Does your daughter know about this?” Lisi asks.

“No ma’m. It’s not something I’d ever want her to know,” Manuel answers.

Then comes the moment everyone is waiting for, the moment that reveals perhaps more than any other the awesome power judges possess. Will Lisi send Manuel to prison to punish her for her fraudulent behavior? Will she make this troubled, working mother serve four months behind bars and pay a $3,000 fine as the government wants her to do?

No, she will not.

“I know you have had a very rough time, but I also see a great deal of good you’ve done in the past,” Lisi says.

Instead of prison, she orders Manuel to serve four months on home confinement followed by five years of probation. Manuel will receive carefully supervised treatment for her mental health issues throughout her probation because, as Lisi notes, “That’s the real problem here.”

As for the fine, Lisi deems this counterproductive, noting that Manuel is still financially responsible for the minor child.

After the sentencing, Manual’s attorney, Edward C. Roy, Jr., describes Lisi as “compassionate when she needs to be.” A public defender who has practiced before Lisi innumerable times since she became a federal judge in 1994, Roy says Lisi “goes out of her way to be fair,” not only to defendants and litigants, but also to the lawyers who represent them.

But compassionate and fair are not the words some people choose to describe Lisi, who last December became Chief Judge of U.S. District Court of Rhode Island, making her one of the most powerful women in the state. Stern? Yes. Touchy?  Sometimes. But compassionate and fair? Not exactly.

“When I cried in court, she sent a marshal over to tell me to stop crying,” recalls Leisa Young, the mother of slain Providence police officer Cornell Young Jr., who brought an ill-fated civil rights suit against the city of Providence in the wake of her son’s death.

It has been four years since Young’s case crumpled in Lisi’s courtroom, five years since outraged black leaders and the state’s bar association blasted Lisi’s handling of the trial, and Young is still trying to recover from the hopelessness and despair she lays directly at the feet of Lisi.

“She did a lot to disillusion my feelings about the justice system,” Young says.

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 - December, 2007

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