Lynne Stewart, a rebellious civil rights lawyer who was sentenced to a decade behind bars for helping a notorious Egyptian terrorist communicate with followers from his U.S. jail cell, died March 7 at her home in Brooklyn. She was 77.
Her husband, Ralph Poynter, confirmed the death. Ms. Stewart, who was diagnosed with terminal cancer, received a “compassionate release” from prison on Dec. 31, 2013, after serving more than four years of a 10-year sentence. She had recently suffered strokes.
Ms. Stewart had an unorthodox career in New York representing small-time criminals and radicals alike before losing her law license over her dealings with the terrorist, Omar Abdel Rahman.
She was convicted of letting Abdel Rahman, the “Blind Sheikh,” overcome strict prison rules meant to cut off contact with the outside world while he served a life sentence for conspiring to assassinate Egypt’s president and bomb five New York City landmarks.
Abdel Rahman, who was convicted in 1995, died last month.
Judge John G. Koeltl, who presided over her 2005 trial, initially sentenced Ms. Stewart to about two years 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 an appeals panel balked.
Ms. Stewart was disbarred after being convicted in the case brought six months after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
In interviews, she described herself as a political prisoner. At trial, she called herself a “revolutionary with a small ‘r.’ ”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrew S. Dember wrote before sentencing that Ms. Stewart “played a central role in repeated fraudulent attempts to pass messages to and from Abdel Rahman.”
The mother of seven was a schoolteacher in Harlem in the 1960s before launching a legal career that brought her into the public spotlight. Her clients included members of the Black Panthers, Weather Underground leaders, a former hit man and a man accused of trying to kill nine police officers.
Ms. Stewart remained outspoken to the end. She was a longtime believer in armed struggle as a way of fostering political revolution and said in a September interview that the killings of police officers had acted as “a deterrent” against the killings of unarmed civilians by police.
Ms. 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 Ms. Stewart in 2001, said Ms. Stewart was confident, especially at her trial.
“ ‘Once they hear my story, they will see,’ ” Shroff recalled Ms. Stewart saying. “You wanted to just hug her and say: ‘This will never happen.’ ”
Shroff called Ms. Stewart a “hodgepodge of contradictions.” She noted that Ms. Stewart would not stand up for the national anthem but that “everything she loved was American. Her biggest love was baseball.”
Lynne Feltham was born in Brooklyn on Oct. 8, 1939. She grew up in Queens, raised by schoolteacher parents, and was a 1961 graduate of Wagner College on Staten Island. She graduated in 1975 from Rutgers Law.
Her first marriage, to Robert Stewart, ended in divorce. Besides her second husband, survivors include two children from her first marriage; a daughter from her second marriage; a sister; a brother; and six grandchildren, according to the New York Times.