Watch our exclusive 2014 report Dying Lawyer Lynne Stewart’s Jubilant Return Home After Winning Compassionate Release
Radical civil rights attorney Lynne Stewart died Tuesday at her home in Brooklyn from complications of cancer and a recent series of strokes. She was 77 years old.
A former teacher and librarian, Stewart was known as a people’s lawyer who represented the poor and revolutionaries. Many considered her a political prisoner herself when she was given a 10-year sentence for distributing press releases on behalf of one of her clients, Omar Abdel-Rahman, an Egyptian cleric known as the “blind Sheikh,” who was convicted of conspiring to blow up the United Nations and other New York City landmarks.
Democracy Now! first interviewed Stewart about the case in 2002.
We were also at the court house in 2006 when Stewart was first sentenced.
In 2009, Stewart spoke to Democracy Now! in her last broadcast interview before beginning her prison sentence, explaining the background to the case and why she had been charged.
“We found out later that the Clinton administration, under Janet Reno, had the option to prosecute me, and they declined to do so, based on the notion that without lawyers like me or the late Bill Kunstler or many that I could name, the cause of justice is not well served. They need the gadflies.
So, at any rate, they made me sign onto the agreement again not to do this. They did not stop me from representing him. I continued to represent him.
And it was only after 9/11, in April of 2002, that John Ashcroft came to New York, announced the indictment of me, my paralegal and the interpreter for the case, on grounds of materially aiding a terrorist organization. One of the footnotes to the case, of course, is that Ashcroft also appeared on nationwide television with Letterman that night ballyhooing the great work of Bush’s Justice Department in indicting.
In 2010, Stewart was re-sentenced to a 10-year term, nearly five times her original sentence, after an appeals court ruled her original punishment was too light.
Attorney Leonard Weinglass said Stewart’s sentence would “mark this era as the era of the war on terrorists, which includes the war on lawyers who defend those who are accused of terrorism. To put her behind bars when no one was injured, no one was harmed, when those who produced the torture memos, those who produced the war are going free and even prospering is really the irony of our time.”
While held in federal prison for nearly four years, Stewart suffered from stage IV breast cancer that metastasized, spreading to her lymph nodes, shoulder, bones and lungs. She was given 18 months to live.
Call to grant her compassionate release came at a time when the Federal Bureau of Prisons faced increasing criticism for refusing to release terminally ill prisoners. In 2013, we spoke to former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark and Democracy Now! producer Renée Feltz, who went to Texas to interview Lynne Stewart in federal prison, the first face-to-face interview granted to a reporter.
We also interviewed Stewart’s husband, Ralph Poynter, and her daughter, Dr. Zenobia Brown, who is a hospice and palliative care specialist with a master’s in public health. Poynter cleared up a common misconception about Stewart’s comments after her original sentencing.
RALPH POYNTER: What she had said, “As many of my clients have said to me when they received a sentence that was less than possible—possibly expected, ‘I can do that standing on my head.'” Now that’s a big difference than saying, “I can do that standing on my head.” And if you go back and review the tapes, it is very clear what she said. And she began by thanking the judge. And all of this has been skipped by the media, who has lied about what Lynne said.
After months of campaigning, a judge granted Stewart’s release, and on New Year’s Day, 2014, Democracy Now! was at the airport when she triumphantly returned to New York with her husband Ralph Poynter, and was met by her family and friends.
CROWD: We love Lynne! We love Lynne!
AMY GOODMAN: Lynne, how do you feel?
LYNNE STEWART: Beyond joy. Beyond joy.
AMY GOODMAN: Lynne, did you think this day would come?
LYNNE STEWART: Well, somehow or other, yes, but not as wonderful as it has come—
AMY GOODMAN: And how are you—
LYNNE STEWART: —or as suddenly. It’s like bursting on me, you know? I mean, yesterday at this time, I was deep in the dungeons, and here I am in my beloved New York. It’s just wonderful. I can’t tell you.
Lynne Stewart, Lawyer Imprisoned in Terrorism Case, Dies at 77Joseph P. Fried – MARCH 7, 2017
Believing that the American political and capitalist system needed “radical surgery,” as she put it, she sympathized with clients who sought to fight that system, even with violence, although she did not always endorse their tactics, she said.
One such client was Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, the blind Egyptian cleric who was found guilty in 1995 of leading a plot to blow up New York City landmarks, including the United Nations, after some of his followers had driven a powerful bomb into a garage beneath the World Trade Center in 1993, killing six people. Ms. Stewart would visit him in prison, where he was serving a life sentence in solitary confinement. Her death came less than three weeks after his: He died in prison on Feb. 18.
Ms. Stewart was convicted in 2005 of helping to smuggle messages from the imprisoned sheikh to his violent followers in Egypt. Her prison sentence, initially set at 28 months, was later increased to 10 years after an appeals court ordered the trial judge to consider a longer term.
The administration of President George W. Bush had brought the case as part of its tough approach to terrorism prosecutions after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
But Ms. Stewart and her supporters maintained that she had not committed any crimes and that the administration had targeted her to discourage lawyers from forcefully defending terrorism suspects.
After her release, she continued her public advocacy of radical-left causes, speaking at rallies and forums on behalf of releasing prisoners convicted of killing law enforcement agents or engaging in terrorism — “political prisoners” to their supporters — and in opposition to charter schools, which she saw as antidemocratic corporate ventures.
Her trial in 2005 had been a news event. Belying the image of a dangerous radical, Ms. Stewart, a short, round-faced woman, often arrived at court wearing a New York Mets cap and a floral-print housedress, dangling a cloth tote bag rather than the lawyer’s typical briefcase and inevitably drawing a clutch of news photographers.
News articles in later years often described her as grandmotherly — infuriating her critics, who insisted that such a description distracted the public from seeing the ally of terrorists they saw.
Many mainstream lawyers who believed that Ms. Stewart had acted criminally nonetheless argued that the charges of abetting terrorism were excessive. Her critics, though, including other lawyers, said the charges were justified, maintaining that she had crossed a professional line into criminal conspiracy.
During the trial, prosecutors said that on several prison visits Ms. Stewart — by loudly chattering and making other “covering noises” — had tried to conceal from guards that her translator was actually a go-between, updating Mr. Abdel Rahman on what his followers in Egypt were doing and receiving oral instructions from him to be relayed back to them.
Ms. Stewart testified that she had engaged in such behavior to safeguard her client’s right to a confidential conversation with her.
Prosecutors said further that Ms. Stewart had criminally aided the sheikh when she called a reporter in Cairo in 2000 to read a news release quoting Mr. Abdel Rahman as withdrawing his support for a cease-fire that his followers had been observing in Egypt. She testified that she had only been trying to keep him in the public eye, consistent with her policy of zealous representation.
In giving her a 28-month prison term, the trial judge cited Ms. Stewart’s long service in representing poor and unpopular defendants. But the sentence angered prosecutors, who had sought a 30-year term. They appealed the sentence while Ms. Stewart appealed the conviction.
Chang W. Lee/The New York Times
In November 2009, an appellate court upheld the conviction and directed the trial judge, John G. Koeltl of Federal District Court in Manhattan, to determine whether she should be resentenced to a longer term.
The next July, Judge Koeltl did lengthen her prison term, to 10 years, citing, among other factors, Ms. Stewart’s public statements after the first sentencing, including her boast that she could do 28 months “standing on my head.” She had shown “a lack of remorse,” he said.
Ms. Stewart’s critics and supporters did agree on one point about her 30-year career, which ended in disbarment with her conviction: Like William M. Kunstler and other lawyers who were proud to be called radical leftists, Ms. Stewart sympathized with the causes of violent clients who deemed themselves revolutionaries in America, though, she said, she did not always endorse their tactics.
“I think that to rid ourselves of the entrenched voracious type of capitalism that is in this country that perpetuates sexism and racism, I don’t think that can come nonviolently,” she testified at her trial.
But she added that she was against “anarchistic violence,” which she defined as violence not supported by a majority of the people, and that terrorist violence was “basically anarchistic.”
Ms. Stewart testified in the same measured tones in which she had methodically presented evidence and argued to juries on behalf of her clients. “I’m not abrasive,” she told an interviewer about her courtroom manner. Outside court, her demeanor was positively jaunty, even when she was speaking of the United States as a sick society needing “radical surgery.”
Ms. Stewart’s other high-profile clients included David J. Gilbert, a member of the radical group the Weather Underground. He was convicted of murder and robbery in the 1981 Brink’s armored car robbery in Rockland County, N.Y., in which two police officers and a Brink’s guard were killed.
Another client, Richard C. Williams, was convicted of killing a New Jersey state trooper and setting off bombs at military centers and corporate offices in the early 1980s.
In 1988, Ms. Stewart and Mr. Kunstler won the stunning acquittal of a drug dealer, Larry Davis, on charges of trying to murder nine police officers in a Bronx shootout in which he wounded six of them. The lawyers argued that Mr. Davis had fired in self-defense; he was found guilty only of weapons possession.
Mr. Davis, whom the police had been trying to arrest on charges of murdering several fellow drug dealers, became a folk hero in some quarters because of the shootout and his ability to elude a manhunt for 17 days after fleeing the scene.
Victor J. Blue for The New York Times
While many people denounced such admiration or were bewildered by it, Ms. Stewart had no trouble with it from her radical-left perspective.
The Davis case, she told The New York Times in 1995, “captured the feelings of the third-world community in the city because here’s a kid, whether you liked what he did or not, he stood up to the police” at a time when “a lot of black people were being assaulted and murdered by the police.” (Mr. Davis was stabbed to death in prison in 2008.)
In that interview, Ms. Stewart acknowledged that some of her leftist colleagues had questioned whether she should have taken Mr. Abdel Rahman’s case. They told her, she said, that as an Islamic fundamentalist he had long sought the overthrow of the Egyptian government in favor of a religious, authoritarian state that would quickly crush left-wing dissenters like her.
But she agreed to represent him, she said, because she believed that he was “being framed because of his political and religious teachings.” Moreover, she said, she sympathized with Egyptians seeking to end an oppressive government and saw the fundamentalist movement as “the only hope for change there.”
At her own trial a decade later, though, Ms. Stewart testified that she did not endorse the Islamic holy war that Mr. Abdel Rahman had preached, and that she had not intended to help his followers in Egypt.
Interviewed by The Times in 2008 — while she remained free during her appeal — Ms. Stewart was asked if she had second thoughts about her actions.
“Would I do it again?” she said. “I would like to think I would if I was confronted with the same set of circumstances. But I might do it differently.”
Lynne Feltham Stewart was born on Oct. 8, 1939, in Brooklyn. A daughter of schoolteachers, she grew up in Queens and graduated in 1961 from Wagner College on Staten Island. She was a public school librarian and teacher for a decade before entering the law school at Rutgers University and graduating in 1975.
Her survivors include her husband, Ralph Poynter; their daughter, Zenobia Brown; two other children, Geoffrey Stewart and Brenna Stewart, from an earlier marriage, to Robert Stewart, which ended in divorce; a sister, Laurel Freedman; a brother, Donald Feltham; and six grandchildren.
Recalling the development of her radical views, Ms. Stewart said she had led a sheltered early life in an all-white, middle-class neighborhood and had become aware of economic and racial injustices only when she began working at the Harlem public school. Seeing the poverty around her, she said, she decided to switch to the law.
“I wanted to change things,” she said.