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(A problematic obit still worth reading.)
NY Times, Mar. 8 2017
Lynne Stewart, Lawyer Imprisoned in Terrorism Case, Dies at 77
By JOSEPH P. FRIED
Lynne F. Stewart, a radical-leftist lawyer who gained wide notice for
representing violent, self-described revolutionaries and who spent four
years in prison herself, convicted of aiding terrorism, died on Tuesday
at home in Brooklyn. She was 77.
The cause of death was complications from cancer and a series of
strokes, said her son, Geoffrey Stewart.
Ms. Stewart, who had been treated for breast cancer before entering
prison, was granted a “compassionate release” in January 2014 after the
cancer had spread and was deemed terminal. Doctors at the time gave her
18 months to live.
Ms. Stewart, a former librarian and teacher, had taken up the law in the
cause of social justice after seeing the squalor in the area around the
public school in Harlem where she taught. She built a reputation for
representing the poor and the reviled, usually for modest, court-paid fees.
Believing that the American political and capitalist system needed
“radical surgery,” as she put it, she sympathized with clients who
sought to fight that system, even with violence, although she did not
always endorse their tactics, she said.
One such client was Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, the blind Egyptian cleric
who was found guilty in 1995 of leading a plot to blow up New York City
landmarks, including the United Nations, after some of his followers had
driven a powerful bomb into a garage beneath the World Trade Center in
1993, killing six people. Ms. Stewart would visit him in prison, where
he was serving a life sentence in solitary confinement. Her death came
less than three weeks after his: He died in prison on Feb. 18.
Ms. Stewart was convicted in 2005 of helping to smuggle messages from
the imprisoned sheikh to his violent followers in Egypt. Her prison
sentence, initially set at 28 months, was later increased to 10 years
after an appeals court ordered the trial judge to consider a longer term.
The administration of President George W. Bush had brought the case as
part of its tough approach to terrorism prosecutions after the Sept. 11,
But Ms. Stewart and her supporters maintained that she had not committed
any crimes and that the administration had targeted her to discourage
lawyers from forcefully defending terrorism suspects.
After her release, she continued her public advocacy of radical-left
causes, speaking at rallies and forums on behalf of releasing prisoners
convicted of killing law enforcement agents or engaging in terrorism —
“political prisoners” to their supporters — and in opposition to charter
schools, which she saw as antidemocratic corporate ventures.
Her trial in 2005 had been a news event. Belying the image of a
dangerous radical, Ms. Stewart, a short, round-faced woman, often
arrived at court wearing a New York Mets cap and a floral-print
housedress, dangling a cloth tote bag rather than the lawyer’s typical
briefcase and inevitably drawing a clutch of news photographers.
News articles in later years often described her as grandmotherly —
infuriating her critics, who insisted that such a description distracted
the public from seeing the ally of terrorists they saw.
Many mainstream lawyers who believed that Ms. Stewart had acted
criminally nonetheless argued that the charges of abetting terrorism
were excessive. Her critics, though, including other lawyers, said the
charges were justified, maintaining that she had crossed a professional
line into criminal conspiracy.
During the trial, prosecutors said that on several prison visits Ms.
Stewart — by loudly chattering and making other “covering noises” — had
tried to conceal from guards that her translator was actually a
go-between, updating Mr. Abdel Rahman on what his followers in Egypt
were doing and receiving oral instructions from him to be relayed back
Ms. Stewart testified that she had engaged in such behavior to safeguard
her client’s right to a confidential conversation with her.
Prosecutors said further that Ms. Stewart had criminally aided the
sheikh when she called a reporter in Cairo in 2000 to read a news
release quoting Mr. Abdel Rahman as withdrawing his support for a
cease-fire that his followers had been observing in Egypt. She testified
that she had only been trying to keep him in the public eye, consistent
with her policy of zealous representation.
In giving her a 28-month prison term, the trial judge cited Ms.
Stewart’s long service in representing poor and unpopular defendants.
But the sentence angered prosecutors, who had sought a 30-year term.
They appealed the sentence while Ms. Stewart appealed the conviction.
In November 2009, an appellate court upheld the conviction and directed
the trial judge, John G. Koeltl of Federal District Court in Manhattan,
to determine whether she should be resentenced to a longer term.
The next July, Judge Koeltl did lengthen her prison term, to 10 years,
citing, among other factors, Ms. Stewart’s public statements after the
first sentencing, including her boast that she could do 28 months
“standing on my head.” She had shown “a lack of remorse,” he said.
Ms. Stewart’s critics and supporters did agree on one point about her
30-year career, which ended in disbarment with her conviction: Like
William M. Kunstler and other lawyers who were proud to be called
radical leftists, Ms. Stewart sympathized with the causes of violent
clients who deemed themselves revolutionaries in America, though, she
said, she did not always endorse their tactics.
“I think that to rid ourselves of the entrenched voracious type of
capitalism that is in this country that perpetuates sexism and racism, I
don’t think that can come nonviolently,” she testified at her trial.
But she added that she was against “anarchistic violence,” which she
defined as violence not supported by a majority of the people, and that
terrorist violence was “basically anarchistic.”
Ms. Stewart testified in the same measured tones in which she had
methodically presented evidence and argued to juries on behalf of her
clients. “I’m not abrasive,” she told an interviewer about her courtroom
manner. Outside court, her demeanor was positively jaunty, even when she
was speaking of the United States as a sick society needing “radical
Ms. Stewart’s other high-profile clients included David J. Gilbert, a
member of the radical group the Weather Underground. He was convicted of
murder and robbery in the 1981 Brink’s armored car robbery in Rockland
County, N.Y., in which two police officers and a Brink’s guard were killed.
Another client, Richard C. Williams, was convicted of killing a New
Jersey state trooper and setting off bombs at military centers and
corporate offices in the early 1980s.
In 1988, Ms. Stewart and Mr. Kunstler won the stunning acquittal of a
drug dealer, Larry Davis, on charges of trying to murder nine police
officers in a Bronx shootout in which he wounded six of them. The
lawyers argued that Mr. Davis had fired in self-defense; he was found
guilty only of weapons possession.
Mr. Davis, whom the police had been trying to arrest on charges of
murdering several fellow drug dealers, became a folk hero in some
quarters because of the shootout and his ability to elude a manhunt for
17 days after fleeing the scene.
While many people denounced such admiration or were bewildered by it,
Ms. Stewart had no trouble with it from her radical-left perspective.
The Davis case, she told The New York Times in 1995, “captured the
feelings of the third-world community in the city because here’s a kid,
whether you liked what he did or not, he stood up to the police” at a
time when “a lot of black people were being assaulted and murdered by
the police.” (Mr. Davis was stabbed to death in prison in 2008.)
In that interview, Ms. Stewart acknowledged that some of her leftist
colleagues had questioned whether she should have taken Mr. Abdel
Rahman’s case. They told her, she said, that as an Islamic
fundamentalist he had long sought the overthrow of the Egyptian
government in favor of a religious, authoritarian state that would
quickly crush left-wing dissenters like her.
But she agreed to represent him, she said, because she believed that he
was “being framed because of his political and religious teachings.”
Moreover, she said, she sympathized with Egyptians seeking to end an
oppressive government and saw the fundamentalist movement as “the only
hope for change there.”
At her own trial a decade later, though, Ms. Stewart testified that she
did not endorse the Islamic holy war that Mr. Abdel Rahman had preached,
and that she had not intended to help his followers in Egypt.
Interviewed by The Times in 2008 — while she remained free during her
appeal — Ms. Stewart was asked if she had second thoughts about her actions.
“Would I do it again?” she said. “I would like to think I would if I was
confronted with the same set of circumstances. But I might do it
Lynne Feltham Stewart was born on Oct. 8, 1939, in Brooklyn. A daughter
of schoolteachers, she grew up in Queens and graduated in 1961 from
Wagner College on Staten Island. She was a public school librarian and
teacher for a decade before entering the law school at Rutgers
University and graduating in 1975.
Her survivors include her husband, Ralph Poynter; their daughter,
Zenobia Brown; two other children, Geoffrey Stewart and Brenna Stewart,
from an earlier marriage, to Robert Stewart, which ended in divorce; a
sister, Laurel Freedman; a brother, Donald Feltham; and six grandchildren.
Recalling the development of her radical views, Ms. Stewart said she had
led a sheltered early life in an all-white, middle-class neighborhood
and had become aware of economic and racial injustices only when she
began working at the Harlem public school. Seeing the poverty around
her, she said, she decided to switch to the law.
“I wanted to change things,” she said.
Benjamin Weiser contributed reporting.
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