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In ten days’ time radical defense lawyer Lynne Stewart will arrive at the gleaming, modern federal court house at 500 Pearl Street, go through the metal detectors, and take the elevator to courtroom 12B. She’ll have with her a toothbrush and three paperback books, and she’ll wear comfortable clothes, just in case District Judge John G. Koetl decides to put her in prison for what could be the rest of her life.
Stewart, who’ll turn 67 this Sunday and has breast cancer, is facing up to 30 years in prison after her conviction for providing material support to terrorism and conspiring to defraud the government. In July 2000, she violated special prison rules governing her client, the “blind Sheikh” Omar Abdel-Rahman, a fundamentalist Muslim cleric linked to a plot to destroy several targets in New York. Stewart wasn’t supposed to convey messages between Rahman and the outside world but she issued two press releases outlining Rahman’s position on terrorist operations in Egypt. She was busted in April 2002 and convicted in February 2005 of supporting terrorism and conspiring to defraud the government by agreeing to the special prison rules that she later violated.
Lynne Stewart, 2005
As you might expect for someone who’s spent a career defending Black Panthers, Arab terrorists, and other unpopular types, Stewart isn’t getting a lot of love these days in tabloid editorials—where due process is always regarded as an irritating inconvenience. When the New York Times reported on a letter she penned to Koetl pleading for “justice, tempered with mercy,” the New York Post said Stewart wasn’t contrite enough—“Prosecutors are asking the judge to put her away for 30 years. She deserves every day, and more”—while the Daily News paraphrased the “weepy letter” from “the onetime Lawyer to the Terrorist Stars,” as saying: “’I admit I’m guilty as charged but after all I’m just a poor, forlorn old lady and anyway I’m a radical and I was only acting like radicals are supposed to act so pleeeeease don’t send me to prison.’”
But as she faced possibly her last few weeks of freedom last Wednesday, Stewart wasn’t exactly on her knees.
In fact, she was on the couch in the reception area outside her office, just north of City Hall, plotting her last stand—figuring out what boxes she was going to have brought from the office to her country home, writing a check to pay for flyers for her supporters, and planning the program for the rally at Riverside Church on the eve of her sentencing. Some of her supporters are going to read letters they’d written to Koetl on her behalf. Two will read theirs together. “It’ll be a real tearjerker,” Stewart notes. On a nearby wall is a CBS News sketch of Stewart cross-examining a witness. On Stewart’s torso is a T-Shirt depicting her clutching the Constitution; it says “Justice & Freedom in the Crosshairs.”
Stewart and her son Jeff, also a lawyer, are chatting about the latest movie she saw, 1932’s “I was a Fugitive from a Chain Gang.” Stewart chuckles over the last line, in which the wrongly imprisoned hero is asked how he survives on the lam. “I steal,” he answers. Then she asks her son from help getting out of the chair.
Although she is technically cancer free, Stewart isn’t the same as before her diagnosis. “I don’t have the stamina I had before. I go to bed earlier. I can’t work quite as hard.” But then Stewart can’t really work anymore, anyway; after her conviction she was barred from representing clients. The only person she’s fighting for now is herself. “There really is no sentence that’s worse for me than to not be a lawyer, to not go to court in the morning,” she says.
Which is not to say prison time is something one shrugs about. “They’re not asking for life, just 30 years,” she says of the Justice Department, winking. “Or have they? I don’t come from a family with longevity.” She’s submitted to Koetl some 400 of the 800 letters she’s received from supporters. Her lawyers are also planning to appeal her conviction on several grounds, including that Koetl allowed in inflammatory testimony about terrorists not connected to her case. Then there’s the letter she wrote the judge.
Contrary to the tabloid’s twisting of her plea to Koetl, Stewart does have remorse, but it is for what she failed to do, not necessarily what she did. “I have a lot of regrets,” she says. “Should we have litigated [Rahman’s prison] conditions? Perhaps we should have.” She pooh-poohs the idea that she was supporting terrorism: Just because left-wing lawyers and right-wing fundamentalists oppose the U.S. government doesn’t mean they’re allies. She does say, however, that she was trying to keep Rahman “a figure that mattered on the Middle East scene,” because she thought that was the best long-term hope to get her client out of jail, as former IRA killers have gotten out when politics changed over there. Stewart also says she felt sorry for Rahman, whose family couldn’t get a visa to visit him and who’d lost the sense of touch that allowed him to read Braille. “He was completely isolated,” she says. She saw the press release as an act of mercy.
Stewart is hopeful that, in the time that’s passed as her sentencing has been postponed because of her health, the political atmosphere has shifted in her favor. Compared to the first year after 9-11, people now take a more critical view of how the “war on terror” is being waged. Still, Stewart has no idea whether Koetl will sentence her to one day, 30 years, community service, house arrest, let her go with a warning—or simply put off her sentence until her appeal is heard.
The uncertainty means that Stewart might be on the brink of profound personal tragedy come October 16—spending her remaining days in prison—or she might not. It’s a weird thing to prepare for. “You start thinking, ‘This might be the last time I go into the basement, or make spaghetti sauce,” she says. And, she adds, you talk to friends who’ve been inside and know what to expect. Stewart will spend her birthday at her country place (only five miles from the Canadian border, but apparently the feds don’t think she’ll run) with family, including her 13 grandchildren; the older ones know what’s looming for her and talk openly about it. She’s also trying to stay healthy before entering the world of prison clinics.
On the day she is sentenced, Stewart wants supporters to gather outside the courthouse; her dream is to make Foley Square on October 16 look like St. Peter’s Square on Easter Sunday. Stewart says her backing has stayed surprisingly strong, from old friends who’d never desert, to activists who detect the worst of the Bush excesses behind her prosecution, to other lawyers who fear someday walking in her shoes. It’s weird, though, to go from an advocate for radical martyrs to a martyr herself. Sometimes she hears comrades talking about her plight in the same breath as Haymarket, the communist witch hunts, and Mother Jones. “Is that me?” she wonders.
If she does go to prison, where ends up will be for the Bureau of Prisons to decide, and given the terrorism tie-in, Stewart doesn’t know how they’ll categorize her security risk. Ironically, she could be subject to “special administrative measures” like the ones she violated. Her team is hoping that Stewart will be assigned to the facility for women n Danbury, Connecticut. A friend who knows an inmate there says they’re getting ready for her arrival. “I’m well-known in prison circles.”
Prison is rough for anyone, but there’s a special pain in becoming the property of a criminal justice system you’ve battled all your life. Still, Stewart says she’s optimistic. At least she’s not blind. “As long as I can read,” she says, shaking her head. “That’s what really got me about the sheikh.”