Lynne Stewart: Terrorist Supporter or Lawyer Hero?


On April 9, the American Civil Liberties Union at HLS presented a talk by controversial former criminal defense attorney Lynne Stewart, challenging the audience in publicity materials to decide if Stewart was a “terrorist… or [a] civil rights hero.” In 2005, a federal jury found Stewart guilty of providing material support to a terrorist group and of conspiracy to defraud the United States. Her conviction stemmed from her representation of Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman, the blind cleric convicted of seditious conspiracy for his role in the 1993 World Trade Center bombings, who is currently serving a life sentence in federal prison.

ACLU-HLS board member and 1L Kathleen Eagan organized the event, having met Stewart during the shooting of a short video on Stewart’s case by New York artist Paul Chan. Stewart and her husband, New York community activist Ralph Poynter, arrived early and mingled with the assembled students, who mostly filled Langdell North.

After showing Chan’s video by way of introduction, Stewart discussed her case, defending her conduct and describing her arrest and subsequent trial. She characterized the actions underlying her prosecution as routine in the course of defending her client, saying that when the FBI arrived at her door to arrest her, she figured they had come to talk to her activist husband.

She proceeded to remember some of the unpopular clients she represented in her nearly 30 year career, including Mafia bosses and followers of radical groups such as the Weather Underground. She dismissed as absurd the possibility, emphasized by prosecutors in her indictment, that she had enabled Abdel-Rahman to pass coded messages to his followers in Egypt through a press release she had issued.

Stewart linked her case to the anxiety of the post-9/11 period, and suggested that today a similar situation might be handled differently. Praising her defense team, she said she was nevertheless prepared for the worst, and was not surprised at her conviction. Federal district judge John Koeltl sentenced her to 28 months, rather than the 30 years requested by prosecutors. She credited “over eleven hundred” former clients and community members for having made the difference by writing individualized letters to Judge Koeltl, who – while recognizing the gravity of her conduct – praised her long service to the nation as a defense lawyer. In closing, Stewart exhorted her audience to serve the broader community in their practices.

While a few audience members asked pointed questions, Stewart’s visit did not attract nearly as much controversy as her participation in a November 2002 public-interest conference at Stanford Law School. There, then-Dean Kathleen Sullivan revoked Stewart’s “Public Interest Visiting Mentor” title at the last minute following a campus uproar, but still allowed Stewart to speak and participate in the conference. Organizer Eagan was surprised by the lack of controversy despite ample event publicity, and said that Stewart herself had “expressed that she might have enjoyed a bit more confrontation,” so she could “dig in and defend herself… she is a trial lawyer through and through.”

The following evening, ACLU-HLS presented a panel response to Stewart’s talk. Professor James Flug moderated, and panelists included on-leave DOJ prosecutor and visiting lecturer James Baker, ACLU of Massachusetts Human Rights Fellow Laura Rótolo, and Professor Peter Murray. The panelists first debated Stewart’s case, weighing the possibility of a “chilling effect” on defense attorneys against the necessity for the government to control potential communication by terrorists to the outside world.

Baker emphasized that government attorneys are facing real problems in limiting communication from inside federal prisons, not just by terrorists, but also by gang leaders and drug dealers, and that the special administrative measures (SAMs) that Stewart had signed in order to be allowed to visit Abdel-Rahman were designed in response to real problems. Rótolo highlighted the myriad constitutional issues – both for clients and attorneys – implicit in SAMs and other restrictions on attorney conduct and attorney-client privilege. Murray highlighted the possible chilling effect of a potential 30-year sentence on defense attorneys saying, “A defense attorney’s job [in representing zealously] is to go right up to the line… They won’t do that if every time they go over the line a bit we chop their leg off.”

While the panelists disagreed sharply on the merits of the result in Stewart’s case, and on its potential dangers for criminal defense attorneys, they agreed that public service is a vital duty for attorneys in all areas of legal practice, and that most of Stewart’s career was an extraordinary example. Eagan praised the panelists, saying they “did a great job” of illuminating the multiplicity of issues raised by Stewart’s “very complicated case.”

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