Defense lawyer Lynne F. Stewart on Monday was sentenced to 28 months in prison for aiding terrorists, far less than the 30 years prosecutors had sought.
Stewart represented Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, who was sentenced to life in prison for plotting to blow up five landmarks in New York. In May 2000, in violation of prison rules, she passed on a statement from Rahman to a Reuters reporter.
Two years later, federal agents pulled up to the stoop of her Brooklyn home and handcuffed her in front of her neighbors. It was a landmark prosecution for the Justice Department, which had never charged an attorney with providing material support to terrorists. Civil rights advocates protested, saying the action would discourage lawyers from defending unpopular clients.
But on Monday, Stewart, 67, emerged from the courthouse beaming. She had packed sweatpants and mystery novels on the assumption she would be led away to prison; instead, she and her family paraded down the street to a Thai restaurant.
“I hope the government realizes their error,” she said as well-wishers pressed red roses into her arms. “I don’t think anybody would say that to go to jail for two years is anything to look forward to. But -- as some of my clients once put it -- I can do that standing on my head.”
Stewart will remain free on bail pending an appeal, and serve her sentence at a correctional facility in Danbury, Conn., where she can receive medical treatment for breast cancer and diabetes.
At the sentencing hearing, U.S. District Judge John G. Koeltl began by saying that Stewart was guilty of passing messages from her client to members of the Islamic Group, a terrorist organization in Egypt, which could have had “potentially lethal consequences.”
But then he turned his attention to her work as an attorney for poor and marginalized clients, saying she “performed a public service, not only to her clients, but to the nation.” Although Stewart sometimes worked as many as 70 cases at a time, he noted, she had earned very little money. He also said she would not be able to repeat her crime, because she will no longer be licensed to practice law, and that her battle with breast cancer would make incarceration difficult.
The case against Stewart hinged on visits she paid to Abdel Rahman in 1999 and 2000. Stewart had signed forms agreeing to follow Special Administration Measures, meaning she would not carry messages between her client and his associates.
Prosecutors charged that Stewart had delivered a letter from an Islamic Group leader urging Abdel Rahman to withdraw his support for a cease-fire between the group and the Egyptian government. In June 2000, Stewart told a reporter for Reuters that the cleric had decided to drop his support for the cease-fire.
Also sentenced Monday were two men who worked with Stewart. Mohammed Yousry, an Arabic interpreter, received a sentence of one year and eight months, although prosecutors had recommended 20 years. Ahmed Abdel Sattar, a close associate of Abdel Rahman’s who was accused of negotiating with militants by phone to end the cease-fire, got 24 years. Prosecutors had sought a life sentence.
“The government is disappointed in the sentences imposed today on Ahmed Abdel Sattar for conspiring to murder and on Stewart and Mohammed Yousry for providing material support to that conspiracy,” U.S. Atty. Michael J. Garcia said. “We will be exploring our appellate options.”
Operating out of a dingy office with a broken toilet, Stewart for three decades has defended an assortment of radicals and dissenters: members of the Black Panthers and the Weather Underground; Richard Williams, who was convicted of setting off bombs at military sites and corporate offices in the 1980s; Salvatore “Sammy the Bull” Gravano, a mob hit man; and drug dealer Larry Davis, who was acquitted of trying to kill nine police officers in a 1986 shootout.
Gradually, Stewart became known as one of the handful of lawyers who would happily take on clients who could not pay.
Among the dozens of supporters who waited outside the courthouse Monday was Henekis Williams, Richard Williams’ daughter, who said that Stewart continued to look after her family long after her father was sent to prison, providing them lodging and money.
“She really went above and beyond the call of duty,” said Williams, 26. “I see Lynne as family.”