She's the New York Mets fan with a belief in armed struggle, the pink-faced grandmother who stands accused of helping a jailed terrorist sheik order followers to kill and kidnap in his name.
Lynne Stewart, a proudly radical lawyer, could face 40 years in federal prison if she's convicted. But she's in no mood to curl up in a fetal position.
"How could I be happier? I feel like I've waited my whole life for this fight," she told a crowd of supporters at a pretrial fundraiser in a Manhattan Quaker church a few weeks back.
"I say this to John Ashcroft: Bring it on!"
The very public trial of the 64-year-old Stewart -- she plans to testify at length and write a Web log throughout -- commences this week in U.S. District Court in Manhattan and likely will stretch until autumn. A left-leaning pillar of this city's boisterous defense bar, Stewart has worked these courtrooms for two decades, representing leftists and mobsters, antiwar demonstrators and dope smugglers. She's been ranked among the city's 10 best trial lawyers.
"I love helping a jury cut through the crap," she said in an interview in her Manhattan law office a few blocks northeast of Ground Zero. "But I can't be sanguine about having the T-word hung around my neck."
The federal indictment accuses Stewart and two men -- an Arabic translator and a former U.S. postal worker -- of aiding a plot to kidnap and perhaps kill people to obtain the release of the imprisoned blind Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, who is serving a life sentence for conspiring to blow up the United Nations, two Hudson River tunnels and Manhattan's FBI building.
The indictment alleges that while visiting her client in prison, Stewart spoke gibberish in English as a cover while the sheik gave instructions in Arabic to a follower posing as a translator. She then allegedly violated federal regulations by publicly announcing in 2000 that Rahman had withdrawn his support for a cease-fire with the Egyptian government.
Rahman is held in a maximum-security prison in Colorado and is prohibited from contacting his followers.
The federal government's indictment of Stewart in April 2002 marked the first time that it had brought charges of conspiring to provide material support for terrorist activity against a defense attorney in a terrorism case.
Attorney General John D. Ashcroft framed the prosecution as another battle in the nation's war on terror. "We will not look the other way when our institutions of justice are subverted," Ashcroft said at the time.
In August 2003, however, U.S. District Court Judge John G. Koeltl cut the heart out of the government's case. "The government's evolving definition" of material support, Koeltl wrote, "reveals a lack of prosecutorial standards" and would allow "policemen, prosecutors and juries to pursue their personal predilections."
In November 2003, federal prosecutors returned to court, bringing new charges based on the same actions by Stewart. This time, prosecutors -- who had secretly taped her talks with her client -- accused Stewart of conspiring to provide "personnel" to the Islamic Group. The sheik, in this formulation, was the "personnel."
The government argued that Stewart was effectively aiding terrorist violence to obtain her client's release. Koeltl allowed the new indictment to stand, but cautioned prosecutors that they would face a far higher standard of proof. Now they had to prove that Stewart knew her actions would aid a terrorist conspiracy.
Prominent defense attorneys and legal ethicists have rallied to Stewart's side. "The majority of the charges curtail her First Amendment rights to speak and to act as a lawyer," said Neal R. Sonnett, chairman of the American Bar Association's Task Force on Treatment of Enemy Combatants.
Stewart often embraces her clients, seeing in their cases the stuff of radical liberation. "I'm not going to say what's healthy for someone who lives somewhere else in the world," she said. "My own political sense tells me that the only hope for change in Egypt is the fundamentalist movement."
Such an argument evokes unease in some of her old friends. Ron Kuby, a pony-tailed defense lawyer and talk-show host, spent two decades working alongside radical lawyer William Kunstler and once defended the sheik. But that's over.
"I love Lynne, but no one in the world could fairly posit the sheik as a progressive or liberal on any issue," Kuby said. "In the aftermath of September 11th, I could no longer put myself in the service of those who are trying to create a world in which I would be put up against a wall and shot, and my daughter and wife would be put in burqahs."
Not a Pacifist
Stewart was a child of the working class, a girl who came of age in what once was known as Archie Bunker Queens. Her father was a meter reader. She went to a local public high school and then to a small Calvinist college in Missouri.
"I know fundamentalists because I lived among them," Stewart said. "My enemy Ashcroft is a fundamentalist."
She returned to New York and found work as a librarian at a Harlem public school. "I saw people forced to live in dirt and the filth and I thought: 'Why the hell didn't I know about this?' " She pauses, her leprechaun eyebrows dancing. "You want to know what radicalized me? Harlem, 1962."
She noticed a muscular black man across the hall, a teacher who spoke passionately about the nation's racial condition. He was Ralph Poynter, and he introduced her to black literature and radical history. They remain married to this day.
In the 1970s, she "hot-footed it" to law school, studying under Arthur Kinoy, a prominent radical legal scholar whose theories centered on the criminalization of the poor.
Stewart slowly carved out a formidable reputation. She is short and heavy, with a flat voice and a taste in clothes that might -- as she jokes -- be described as early frump. But her smile is infectious and her manner disarmingly maternal, and she can home in like sonar on the weakness in a prosecution case.
"Lynne envelops a jury in this idealistic vision," Kuby said. "She gives the sense that if they convict her poor client, the eagle in the American emblem will come to life and peck their eyes out."
In 1988 she defended Larry Davis, a longtime drug dealer involved in a shootout in which he wounded six police officers. The case seemed open and shut. But Stewart cast her client as a noble black outlaw taking on corrupt cops. Davis was acquitted.
"Blacks and Hispanics can hear the nuances in a Larry Davis story," Stewart said at the time. "Blacks fear the police being able to kill their kids at any time and being able to get away with it. This is sort of payback time."
Stewart does not blanch at violence. Blood, she says, has irrigated revolutionary struggles from China to South Africa. When the South African government locked up Nelson Mandela, his followers did not lay down their arms.
"I'm not a pacifist," Stewart said. "I have cried many bitter tears. There is death in history, and it's not all rosebuds and memorial services. Mao, Fidel, Ho Chi Minh understood this."
Former U.S. attorney general Ramsey Clark persuaded Stewart to take Rahman's case. His own politics have drifted far to the left and his words resonated with her.
"Ramsey said it would be a terrible black mark against progressive forces in the United States not to represent him," Stewart recalled. "He said, 'If you're a fireman and you walk by a burning building, you must run in.' "
So Stewart met the sheik. "We hit it off," Stewart said, "He's really an incredible person."
A jury, however, convicted Rahman in 1995 of terrorist conspiracy, and a judge sentenced him to life in prison, where the government imposed an order greatly restricting his contact with the outside world. Stewart continued to represent him and on May 19, 2000, traveled to his prison in Minnesota. She had earlier signed an agreement that she would not help Rahman communicate with his followers.
The government's indictment accuses Stewart of keeping up a nonsensical patter while Rahman's interpreter, Mohammed Yousry, discussed Islamic Group strategy with Rahman. The next day, the sheik dictated a letter to Yousry withdrawing his support for the cease-fire, and Stewart later released a statement to the foreign media.
The government has also indicted Yousry and Ahmed Abdel Sattar, a postal employee.
Stewart doesn't deny that she violated federal regulations when she released the public statement, but she notes that she has since abided by the restrictions. And she attributes her nonsensical prison chatter to the tedium that comes with working with a translator. "Charging me with distracting the guards sounds like I was doing the hootchy-kootchy," she said.
More broadly, Stewart argues -- with support from some prominent legal ethicists -- that the government has consigned Rahman to an informational tomb. It's her ethical duty as an attorney to keep his case alive on the world stage. "His word matters," she said. "He wouldn't be the first man accused of terrorism who is released from prison when times change."
Other legal scholars counterpose another reality: Stewart's client was the leader, spiritual or otherwise, of an armed organization pursuing devastating attacks on the United States and its allies.
"Lynne was representing a very scary person, and she knew that going in," said James Jacobs, the Warren E. Burger professor of constitutional law at New York University. "It should have been very clear that she had to worry about crossing any line."
Stewart has traveled and spoken often since her indictment, reflecting her belief that the best way to avoid demonization is to let people -- not to mention potential jurors -- hear her voice. This is why she plans to testify at length -- and why the prosecution has sought to bar any mention that she's a grandmother. But she acknowledges that the shadow of a four-decade jail term looms over everything.
"You are not optimistic," she said, "because you understand the odds and the tremendous power of the federal government." Her voice trails off, then she brightens.
"My role, my role now is to play the poster girl fighting Ashcroft," she said. "Besides, who on a jury wouldn't love me?"