Lynne F. Stewart, the former defense lawyer convicted of assisting terrorism, reportedly has been released from prison so that she can live out the final months of her life with her family. She is dying of cancer is believed to have less than 18 months to live.
As someone who has handled terrorism cases as defense counsel and worked under the often abusive limitations placed by the Justice Department on counsel, I was concerned over the prosecution of Stewart and felt that she received a very heavy sentence of 10 years for passing along messages between Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, the blind Egyptian cleric who was convicted in 1995 of conspiring to blow up landmarks in New York City, and his supporters.
Special Administrative Measures (SAMs) can be used to harass prisoners and inhibit defense efforts. Nevertheless, Stewart clearly did violate those provisions. Stewart was implicated with interpreter Mohamed Yousry, an adjunct professor in Middle East studies at York College CUNY, and postal clerk Ahmed Sattar. She was was accused of passing along Rahman’s blessing for a resumption of terrorist operations to al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya members in Egypt after they inquired whether they should continue to honor a ceasefire agreement with the Egyptian government. The indictment detailed knowing efforts to trick the guards including an alleged statement by Stewart that she should get an award for acting. Notably, a material support charge was dismissed in 2003 but the Justice Department continued to press for a conviction and recharged her (and secured a conviction for) obstruction of justice and conspiracy to provide material support to terrorism. It is clear that she lost her objectivity in her relationship with the defendant and violated the SAMs. The question was the need for a ten year sentence, particularly after her defense raised questions regarding the translation of the key communication.
I was also surprised by the initial denial of a compassionate release by Judge John G. Koeltl of United States District Court in August. Stewart gave the court a 12-page handwritten letter to the judge saying that she did not want to die in prison, “a strange and loveless place. I want to be where all is familiar — in a word, home.” Koeltl turned her down.
It was clearly a valid and compelling motion but Koeltl insisted that he would do nothing unless the Bureau of Prisons made the motion. Why? The case seemed to be another example of how judges invest these agencies, particularly the Justice Department, with unilateral control on such questions. Medical reports showed Stewart’s cancer had spread to her lungs, lymph system and bones.
Finally, the BOP made such a motion given the medical record showing that Stewart has a life expectancy of less than 18 months.
I had some interaction with Stewart in an earlier criminal case in New York. She was known as someone who felt strongly about the rights of the accused, though she also had a bit of a reckless reputation. However, she committed her life to fighting for the rights of the accused. She deserves to be home with her family in these final months.