Lynne Stewart (AP/Mark Lennihan)
Lynne Feltham Stewart, a New York civil rights lawyer who represented small-time criminals and radicals alike before losing her license to practice law after she was convicted in a terrorism case, has died of cancer three years after her release from prison.
Stewart was 77 when she died Tuesday in the Brooklyn home she shared with her husband, Ralph Poynter. She had long fought breast cancer and recently suffered strokes.
“She marched to a different drummer, and the drummer was good,” an emotional Poynter said Wednesday.
The mother of seven was a schoolteacher in Harlem in the 1960s before graduating from Rutgers University School of Law and launching a legal career that brought her into the public spotlight. Her clients ranged from small-time crooks to members of the Black Panthers, Weather Underground leaders, a former hit man and a man accused of trying to kill nine police officers.
Stewart was arrested on April 9, 2002—six months after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks—after the U.S. Department of Justice accused her of helping her client, blind Egyptian sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman, overcome strict prison rules meant to cut off contact with the outside world. He was serving a life sentence for his 1995 conviction in conspiracies to assassinate Egypt’s president and bomb five New York City landmarks.
In a 2003 interview with the New York Law Journal, Stewart described herself as a “political” or “radical” lawyer, for whom defense of the client sometimes means defense of the client’s cause” (NYLJ, Sept. 29, 2003).
“It never occurred to me to think of myself as part of [the sheik's party],” she said at the time. “This was a political prisoner in my view. His motivations, if proven, were political. They certainly weren’t monetary or because he was a depraved person.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrew Dember wrote prior to sentencing that Stewart “played a central role in repeated fraudulent attempts to pass messages to and from Abdel-Rahman.”
She was convicted in 2005 of providing material support to a terrorist conspiracy. She did so principally by broadcasting the sheik’s withdrawal of support for a ceasefire on terror attacks by the Islamic Group in Egypt—a violation of her repeated promises to abide by special administrative measures imposed to keep the sheik walled-off from his supporters (NYLJ, July 19, 2010).
Southern District Judge John Koeltl, who presided over her trial, initially sentenced her to 28 months in prison. He described her in heroic terms, saying her representation of the poor, disadvantaged and unpopular provided a “service not only to her clients but to the nation.”
He stiffened the sentence after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit balked. The appeals court faulted the initial sentence for failing to fully take into account Stewart’s abuse of trust in her role as a lawyer and the perjury she committed on the witness stand at trial. It also questioned whether the application of a sentencing enhancement for committing a crime of terrorism should apply and told the judge to “consider the overall question of whether the sentence is appropriate in view of the magnitude of the offense (NYLJ, June 29, 2012).
Stewart also had made post-sentencing comments saying she could handle the initial sentence “standing on my head.”
Koeltl resentenced her to a 10-year term in 2010. Stewart challenged the resentence, saying it violated her free speech rights. The circuit said her First Amendment rights were not abridged.
Stewart was disbarred after her conviction. In interviews, she described herself as a political prisoner. At trial, she called herself a “revolutionary with a small ‘r.’”
She received a “compassionate release” from prison on Dec. 31, 2013, and was projected to live less than 18 months. The sheik died last month.
Despite illness, Stewart remained outspoken to the end. A longtime believer in armed struggle as a way of fostering political revolution, she said in a September 2016 interview that the killings of police officers had acted as “a deterrent” against the killings of unarmed civilians by police.
Stewart said violence sometimes leads to societal change, allowing “the more peaceable shepherds among us to approach the wolf.”
“I was never happier than walking into court,” she said. “In prison, I really learned how appalling the criminal justice system was.”
Assistant Federal Defender Sabrina Shroff, who worked with Stewart in 2001, said Stewart was confident, especially at her trial.
“Once they hear my story, they will see,” Shroff recalled Stewart saying. “You wanted to just hug her and say: ‘This will never happen.’”
Shroff called Stewart a “hodgepodge of contradictions.” She noted Stewart would not stand up for the national anthem.
Yet, she added: “Everything she loved was American. Her biggest love was baseball. She loved Thanksgiving.”