Stewart's Case Log: Revolutionaries, Hit Men, the Poor and the Obscure

By SABRINA TAVERNISE

New York Times

January 11, 2005

Lynne F. Stewart, the activist defense lawyer convicted yesterday of aiding terrorism, has spent her life passionately defending some very unpopular clients.

Ms. Stewart, 65, now faces as many as 30 years in prison. In a short speech outside the courthouse in downtown Manhattan after the verdict yesterday, Ms. Stewart declared: "I know I committed no crime. I know what I did was right. I'd like to think I'd do it again. It's the way a lawyer is supposed to behave."

Long before Ms. Stewart took up the defense of Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, the blind Egyptian cleric on whose account she was convicted yesterday, she was taking cases that no one else wanted. Among her more prominent clients were a Mafia hit man, leftist revolutionaries and a man accused of trying to kill police officers. But she also defended the poor and obscure.

"Everybody in the courthouse respects Lynne's common humanity and kindness," said Elsie Chandler, a fellow lawyer who first met Ms. Stewart 15 years ago in Criminal Court in Manhattan. "She is not afraid to take clients that are unpopular."

Mr. Abdel Rahman was one of those clients. She took up his defense in 1994, shortly before his trial, after two other civil rights lawyers had been taken off the case. The sheik, a spiritual leader of the Islamic jihad movement, was accused of plotting to blow up New York City landmarks. He was convicted and sentenced to life in federal prison, but Ms. Stewart contended that he had been made a target by the United States government and continued to defend him.

"He's being framed because of his political and religious teachings," Ms. Stewart said in an interview in 1995. Those qualities aligned him, she said, with others she had defended, like David J. Gilbert, a member of the Weather Underground who was convicted in the 1981 Brink's armored-car robbery in Rockland County, or Richard C. Williams, who was convicted of setting off bombs at military sites and corporate offices in the early 1980's.

The conviction yesterday, which capped a trial of more than seven months that involved hours of taped conversations in Arabic, focused on messages she passed from her client to the outside world, in violation of federal prison rules.

Born Lynne Feltham in Brooklyn in 1939, Ms. Stewart grew up in a middle-class family in Queens. She married young, later divorced, and met her current husband, Ralph Poynter, while working as a school librarian in Harlem in the early 1960's. The two plunged into the radical movement.

Perhaps her most celebrated defense was that of Larry Davis, a man accused of wounding six New York City police officers in a 1986 shootout. Ms. Stewart argued that Mr. Davis, who is black, was justified in using violence because the police were using violence on blacks at the time. He was acquitted of attempted murder.

Ms. Stewart's compassion is legendary, her friends said. Ms. Chandler recalled representing a client who had once been counseled by Ms. Stewart. The client had again been charged with a violent crime. Ms. Chandler told Ms. Stewart about it.

"I could see on her face that she remembered him and that she was so unhappy that he had been rearrested," Ms. Chandler said. "There are so few lawyers who have that basic humanity and kindness."

Some say that Ms. Stewart never gave up the ideals of the 1960's. In the 1995 interview, Ms. Stewart said the struggle by Egyptians against their authoritarian government was "the only hope for change there, the one that gathers the imagination of the people, that motivates them."

After Sept. 11, 2001, the Islamic cause became unpopular in the United States. Ms. Stewart's supporters say that the case against her stuck only because the political environment in the country had changed.

Ms. Stewart took the verdict with characteristic passion. On her way out of court, after registering with the probation office, she said she planned to listen to music and "re-center, reorganize and prepare for what comes next."