Lawyer to Radicals May Face Prison Term
Sunday, October 15, 2006; 3:47 PM
NEW YORK -- She's already a grandmother of 14, a cancer survivor and a former civil rights lawyer who took on radical clients others considered toxic.
Lynne Stewart will soon find out if she will be forced to assume another role _ prison inmate.
"I couldn't tell you I'm not stressed," Stewart said about her Monday sentencing in a Manhattan terrorism case. "I'm very concerned."
Prosecutors have asked a federal judge to impose a 30-year term for what they described in court papers as Stewart's "extremely dangerous and devious" conduct to help an Egyptian terrorist leader communicate with followers.
Stewart, 67, recently responded by writing the judge a nine-page letter seeking leniency.
Mixed with her trademark defiance _ "I am not a traitor" _ was a measure of contrition. After some soul searching, she wrote, she had concluded that a careless over-devotion to her clients _ "I am softhearted to the point of self-abnegation" _ was her undoing.
The letter was an attempt to "look back at this disaster in my life and speak to the judge from my brain and my heart," she told The Associated Press in a recent telephone interview. "I think mercy is a great quality, but it's very hard to ask for it for myself."
She admits the plea may be too little, too late.
"I don't know whether it's the lawyer or the Irish in me that says, 'Prepare for the worst,'" she said. "I'm prepared to be led out of that courtroom in handcuffs."
Stewart was convicted in February 2005 of providing material support to terrorists by releasing a statement of Sheik Ahmed Abdel-Rahman, who was imprisoned for life after being convicted in 1995 of plotting to blow up New York City landmarks.
Prosecutors said she blatantly broke rules designed to keep the blind cleric from communicating with the outside world and inciting violence, especially among his followers in Egypt.
It was hardly unusual for Stewart to question authority and defend unpopular figures in her three-decade legal career. With an aggressive yet self-effacing courtroom style, she represented Black Panthers, leaders of the 1960s student activist group Weather Underground, a former mob hit man and a man accused of trying to kill nine police officers.
As with other clients, she grew close to Abdel-Rahman and watched as he deteriorated mentally and physically through years of solitary confinement _ to the point, she says, that she felt compelled to help him speak out.
She believes the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, more than anything, made her behavior intolerable in the eyes of the government and gave it an excuse to make an example out of her.
"I did what I did for the client because he was a human being," she said. "Did my heart run away with me? It always does ... I let myself slide too much."
Testifying in her own defense, Stewart insisted she never condoned the sheik's terrorist agenda. But she also called herself "a revolutionary with a small 'r,'" saying she believed violence against institutions was sometimes necessary to fight oppression.
She still believes it.
"My politics hasn't changed," she said. But she regrets not striking a gentler tone on the witness stand.
"I probably should have spent more time talking about what kind of lawyer I am, so the jury would understand," she said.
After her conviction, the attorney-turned-criminal defendant became a medical patient when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Surgery and radiation treatments have restored her health enough to face sentencing.
Stewart has drawn comfort from her family, including her six adult children and 14 grandchildren, and enjoyed the backing of other defense lawyers and strangers who see her case as a symptom of intolerant times. There have been hundreds of letters of support and a series of rallies.
Her supporters see her case as "another affront to the constitution," she said. "They want to live in a free society."
Being a martyr behind bars has no appeal, she said. But even if she somehow escapes a harsh sentence, losing her identity has been ample punishment.
"To have lost my career. To be looked at askance. This loss of my personhood is immeasurable to me," she wrote in her letter. "It is the worst sentence and it is immutable."