New York lawyer Lynne Stewart found herself in the unusual position of being on the witness stand Monday, testifying in her own defense as she stands trial on charges she supported a terrorist conspiracy.
With her hands clasped on her lap, she was led through a series of questions by her attorney Michael Tigar, to trace her political awakening that turned her into one of the city's top trial lawyers, well-known for taking on radical clients. She is on trial for allegedly helping one of those clients, Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, communicate with his followers.
Stewart told the jury that she took his case because it had become a symbol of the "overreaching of government," and because "attorneys are bound to accept cases -- even those that are hated by the general public."
"He was a blind man. He was from a different culture. He was representing himself in conditions that were difficult," said Stewart, 65, who wears oval glasses and has a light Queens accent.
Federal prosecutors have charged Stewart with conspiracy and abetting terrorism, fraud and making false statements. If convicted, Stewart faces 40 years in prison.
Prosecutors say that in 2000, Stewart passed messages between Rahman and his followers within the Islamic Group, designated a terrorist organization by the U.S. government.
A jury convicted the Egyptian cleric in 1995 of conspiring to blow up several New York landmarks.
Stewart is the first defense lawyer in a terrorism case to face federal charges of conspiring to support terrorism. Her trial began in June. In her testimony Monday, her defense was attempting to provide jurors a view of her state of mind, in order to show that Stewart was not deliberately assisting terrorists and to explain how she came to represent radical clients.
Stewart traced her political birth to Harlem before the civil rights era, where she worked as a librarian at a public school. She told the jury that she commuted to a New Jersey law school on a motorcycle, where she was schooled in the belief that the law is an instrument for improving society.
Stewart built a reputation for defending cases and people few others wanted to take, from victims of police brutality to mobsters and radical groups. But in the courtroom on Monday, Stewart made a distinction between her legal advocacy and the ideology of her clients.
"You have to take a step aside. You can't be too close to a client or too close to their cause," she said.
Originally, government attorneys accused Stewart, along with Ahmed Abdel Sattar and Mohammed Yousry, of aiding a plot to kidnap and kill people to secure the release of Rahman.
But U.S. District Judge John G. Koeltl dismissed charges that Stewart provided "material support" for terrorist activity as being too broadly written.
In November 2003, the government submitted a revised indictment. In it, prosecutors accused Stewart of providing "personnel" to a terrorist group, by facilitating communication between Rahman and his followers in the Islamic Group.
At issue now, and what government attorneys must prove to win a conviction, is whether she intended to aid terrorism.
Stewart acknowledges she passed along notes from the sheik. She called a Reuters reporter to convey the sheik's opposition to a cease-fire between his followers and the Egyptian government. Her attorneys have said she acted in his interest by keeping his case and voice in the public arena.
Prosecutors recorded Stewart speaking over a conversation between her aide and Rahman, seemingly to conceal the discussion as he talked about his opinions about the cease-fire. The exchange, normally covered under attorney-client privilege, was made available after prosecutors secured a warrant permitting them to secretly record privileged conversations between Stewart and her client.
Stewart is expected to testify for several more days.