Skip to comments.Terrorist Lawyer
Posted on 09/23/2002 8:44:23 AM PDT by adam stevensOne Saturday morning in November 1994, Ramsey Clark, attorney general under President Johnson and more recently a spokesman for radical Arab causes, met in his Manhattan office with a criminal defense lawyer named Lynne Stewart. Clark wanted Stewart to take on a new client -- Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, a blind Egyptian cleric and the spiritual leader of the worldwide jihad movement, whose most recent address before the Metropolitan Correctional Center was a fourth-floor apartment in Jersey City. The sheik was about to go on trial for directing a conspiracy among his followers to bomb sites around New York City, including bridges, tunnels and the United Nations. His previous attorneys, the left-wing lawyers William Kunstler and Ronald Kuby, had been taken off the case because they represented other defendants who had conflicts of interest with Abdel Rahman. The sheik had dismissed his court-appointed lawyer. A month before trial, Clark told Stewart that only she could do the job.
In 1994 Stewart had barely heard of Hamas or Hezbollah, let alone the Islamic Group of Egypt, a violent fundamentalist organization that targeted Coptic Christians, secular intellectuals, policemen and foreign tourists, and for which the sheik provided inspirational leadership. Political Islam was not, as she puts it, on her ''radar.'' Most of her clients were young black and Latino men accused of ordinary crimes, but throughout the 1980's, she also defended members of the radical American underground. Stewart was a ''movement'' lawyer -- she didn't just defend the legal rights of her clients; she also advocated their politics. Friends warned her that the sheik wasn't her kind of client. He was a religious fascist who opposed everything that the feminist, atheist and vaguely revolutionary Marxist Stewart stood for.
What concerned Stewart, though, was not the sheik's politics but her own ability to represent him with almost no time to prepare. The little she knew of the sheik himself -- a man hounded by the government, accused of masterminding a terrorist plot on which he seemed to have left no fingerprints -- appealed to her. All morning in Ramsey Clark's office, Stewart wavered. Finally Clark told her that if she refused, the Arab world would feel betrayed by their friends on the American left. So she agreed to take the case.
As Stewart got to know her new client, she came to see him as a fighter for national liberation on behalf of a people oppressed by dictatorship and American imperialism. She came to admire him personally too, for his honesty, his strength of character, his teasing humor.
''I've made up my mind,'' the sheik would say. ''I'm going to marry you, and that will solve everything.''
''And what do women get if they fight in jihad?'' she would ask.
''Eternity in paradise with whichever of your husbands you like best.''
''Husbands? That's all we get?''
Stewart threw herself into the case with the passion for which she was known in criminal-defense circles. At trial she tried to convince the mostly black jury that the sheik was not an unfamiliar figure to them. ''He has advocated for the suffering of his people at home, in Egypt,'' she said in her opening argument. ''He has advocated by any means necessary, and that is not acceptable to this government.'' Prints of John Brown's home and grave hang in her office, and in her summation she invoked his spirit. But this time Stewart misjudged her audience. When the jury returned with a conviction, she wept.
In 1995, few people were paying attention. Today, the trial transcript reads like a 20,000-page prelude to Sept. 11: sleeper cells, secret funds, international jihad, connections to a group called Al Qaeda and a man named bin Laden.
Stewart stayed by the sheik over the years of appeals, paid minimally by contributions from his Muslim supporters, who now regarded her as their champion. She was laboring under the restrictions imposed by the government's Special Administrative Measures, or SAM's, which curtail the activities of convicted terrorists to prevent them from plotting future acts of terrorism. Stewart, like other lawyers in this situation, had to sign an agreement not to pass information to or from clients except for strictly legal purposes.
Then in May 2000, at a meeting with Stewart in the federal prison in Rochester, Minn., the sheik dictated a statement to his Arabic translator, Mohammed Yousry, calling for an end to the cease-fire between the Islamic Group and the Egyptian government. The statement was phoned to Islamic Group leaders by Ahmed Abdel Sattar, a Staten Island mailman and follower of the sheik who had worked as a paralegal on the case. The sheik's followers in Egypt doubted the statement's authenticity -- until Stewart herself, in violation of the SAM's, held a press conference a few weeks later to confirm that Abdel Rahman advocated withdrawal from the cease-fire.
She imagined that she might be cut off from the sheik. She did not know that her prison conversations with the sheik were being taped by a court order stemming from Sattar's activities with the Islamic Group. And she did not imagine what would happen on April 9 of this year, when she was handcuffed outside her Brooklyn town house by F.B.I. agents and arraigned in federal court in Manhattan on two counts of lying to the government and two counts of aiding a terrorist organization. Attorney General John Ashcroft himself flew to New York to announce Stewart's indictment, along with those of Yousry, Sattar and an Islamist in London. The trial will begin next year. Stewart, now 62, faces 40 years in federal prison.
''At trial you'll see two different narratives,'' says Stephen Gillers, vice dean of New York University School of Law. ''The defense narrative is going to be that the U.S. is using 9/11 to destroy constitutional rights that the government has upheld for 200 years, through wars and disasters. And the prosecution narrative is going to be: focus on what Lynne Stewart did in that prison in May of 2000, well before Sept. 11.''
There is a third narrative, one that isn't likely to receive a full hearing at trial. In this version, a white middle-class girl from Bellerose, Queens, formed by the 50's, is radicalized by the 60's and by a black man for whom she is willing to tear her life in two. Together they become New York revolutionaries -- for this is at every turn a local story, though it crosses paths with world events -- and so they remain long after the radical years have ended and others have moved on. Then, late in life, in a new era, the woman takes up a new cause, commits herself ever more deeply to it and suddenly finds that she has become the defendant. ''My true goal,'' Stewart says, ''was always to be on the right side of history.''
But Islamic fundamentalism isn't black power, and the history that began on Sept. 11 will not be forgiving of people who pick the wrong cause. Always drawn in the most personal way to the outcast, Stewart herself now seems isolated even within the world that has been her only true home, the legal left. She had told Ramsey Clark that she would take the sheik's case only if other ''movement'' lawyers helped, but she faces ruin alone.
Physically, Lynne Stewart suggests a cheerful and profound self-neglect. In press photographs she resembles Ma Kettle. Her hair, gray and lank, seems to have expired on her head. She dresses for court like a Sicilian widow in sensible shoes, hobbling side to side from excess weight and a recent courtroom fall. Friends have to remind her to cut her hair, which she did after pleading ''emphatically not guilty'' while the cameras fixed her in their unpitying sights.
What pictures and public statements don't convey is Stewart's warmth, her vulnerability. These come across in her brown eyes, and in conversation, which unspools in long, discursive and quite unguarded strands, the thick Queens vowels often rising on screeches of amusement as she squints in delight. Stewart does not talk like a lawyer or a politico -- no jargon, no euphemisms. Her great talent as a lawyer, says Kuby, is to see something redemptive in everyone and to make jurors see it too. In person it isn't possible to dislike her -- and she never expresses deep dislike, even when the subject turns to John Ashcroft.
Growing up in the 50's in farthest Queens, the daughter of schoolteachers, Lynne Feltham was a bookish tomboy. She resisted the rites of passage into womanhood, and one day she told her mother: ''All my friends have boyfriends, and I don't have a boyfriend. What's wrong with me?''
''You're too smart,'' her mother said. ''Tone it down.''
She didn't tone it down, but she suffered the peculiar pain of being ''an honorary guy -- which is interesting, because that's of course how the Muslims also treat me. They don't have to deal with the feminine. I'm an honorary guy, or else they couldn't deal with me at all.''
She still suffers. However far she has moved away from the conformist 50's, Stewart can't muster the unbridled defiance of a woman 10 years younger. What she calls a self-esteem problem extends to her current crisis. ''I never expected to be fighting for myself,'' she says. ''I could fight for you, but to fight for me? That's hard. Because I was a girl of the 50's, because I'm not worth it? I don't know. But it's too self-aggrandizing, too necessary to make myself into an image of something, rather than just be, you know, all the warts, what I am.''
She followed the pattern of her generation into early marriage and motherhood. But when her husband suffered a psychological breakdown, Stewart, then 21, found that the family's moral and financial support depended on her. She went to work as a librarian in a decaying elementary school in Harlem. It was 1962.
Across the hall was the classroom of a black teacher named Ralph Poynter. A short, broad former amateur boxer, Poynter had brought from western Pennsylvania a love of jazz clarinet and a pent-up rage. When Stewart met him, he was ''a repressed revolutionary in a suit and tie.'' She was seeing things for which nothing in her life had prepared her: an 8-year-old boy whose lips had been chewed by a rat while he slept; teachers who expected their students to learn nothing. The white librarian and the black teacher gravitated toward each other, and Poynter became Stewart's guide to black America. James Baldwin's ''Fire Next Time'' came out that year, Malcolm X's fame was growing, Harlem seethed. It all matched Ralph Poynter's mood. And his militancy felt like liberation of every kind to Lynne Stewart.
''Two people who are passionate about the same things,'' Ginny Gernes, Stewart's best friend from schooldays, says, ''and then what else can happen?''
It still embarrasses Stewart to talk about their affair, and yet nothing animates her more than to recall how she fell in love and became a radical in one risky and inextricable leap. Everything was happening at once, history feeding rage, rage politics, politics intimacy. They plunged into the community-school movement at its left-wing fringe, with Poynter in the role of organizer and enforcer, losing his job and eventually serving six months on Rikers Island for three felony counts of assaulting a police officer.
It was all part of the attraction. ''Oh, I'm Desdemona,'' Stewart says, laughing, alluding to Othello's famous lines: ''She loved me for the dangers I had pass'd,/And I loved her that she did pity them.''
Stewart had to prove herself worthy over and over. When Poynter lost his job, she gave him half her paycheck, though he was still living with his wife and Stewart felt too guilty to take child support from her ex-husband. Poynter agonized over his own motives, searching for traces of racial self-hatred. ''He talks black,'' people at meetings would say, ''but he sleeps white.'' He sought advice from a Harlem legend named Queen Mother Moore of the Captive Non-Self-Governing Nation of Africans Born in America. Queen Mother Moore told Poynter that Lynne Stewart was the real thing and would never betray him. But she also urged him to have many other women, because he was a black warrior who needed to propagate the race.
''I enjoyed that view,'' Poynter says, ''but that was not my view.''
''He indulged that view,'' Stewart clarifies, ''but he did not adopt it.''
Forty years after they met in Harlem, Stewart and Poynter have an extended multiracial clan -- seven children between them (one together) and seven grandchildren. He drives her everywhere, while she nags him to watch the road. Winding along the East River from Bronx County Courthouse, he announces, ''This country is founded on brutality.'' ''Exploitation,'' she says. ''I like it better when you say exploitation, Ralph.'' ''Brutal exploitation.'' She smiles fondly and pats his hand.
In the 1970's, Stewart went to law school and began a criminal practice. But she had missed the golden age of the legal left, the trials of the draft resisters and the Chicago 8 and the Panther 21. By the early 80's, Stewart was defending violent members of the splinter groups that were all that remained of the revolutionary dreams of the 60's -- the Weather Underground, the Ohio 7, the Black Liberation Army. And when these cases ended, when the armed revolutionaries were all in jail or dead, ''movement'' lawyers like Stewart and Kunstler and Kuby no longer had a movement. They took on even more dubious clients: drug dealers, cop killers, mobsters, mentally ill assassins. It was hard to see exactly what was left-wing about Colin Ferguson, the Long Island Rail Road shooter (except, if you asked Kunstler, his skin color), or Sammy the Bull (Salvatore Gravano), the mob informant who was Stewart's client until her indictment (except that the government was out to get him). The idea of a genuine program for social change no longer animated their careers. The legal left now represented thugs trying to beat the system.
In recent years, Stewart's practice has been devoted primarily to defending poor, young black and Latino men -- a few of them her own family members or employees. The boundaries between family and friendship and work are blurred for her. Stewart's son practices law with her; she represented her daughter's common-law husband (Poynter calls him ''my sin-in-law'') on drug charges; her paralegal is a former client who served three and a half years for harboring her fugitive husband (one of the Ohio 7) and whose child temporarily came under Stewart and Poynter's care; her office assistant is the son of a jailed black revolutionary. Most of her cases and clients are too obscure to count as political. And yet, for Stewart, this, too, is politics -- perhaps the truest kind. Not long ago, reading aloud to Poynter from the preface to ''Native Son,'' she exclaimed: ''This is why I'm a criminal defense lawyer! It's because he's talking about these kids in the black community that have no voice, that can't articulate, that are just so consumed by their own anger and frustration. And it hasn't changed.''
There her career might have remained, if Stewart hadn't been introduced by Ramsey Clark to a new movement. But this was a truly worldwide movement. It was serious; it was real -- realer in a way than anything in the 60's.
On a humid evening in June, I was coming out of the offices of the Center for Constitutional Rights onto lower Broadway when I heard a Queens accent pronounce my name. Lynne Stewart was limping along the sidewalk in a striped smock. I told her that the meeting of the Lynne Stewart Defense Committee had been canceled at the last minute.
''Canceled? Nobody told me.'' She looked stricken. ''Maybe it was the leak.''
Three days earlier, a supposedly sealed affidavit for a search warrant had turned up on the Court TV Web site thesmokinggun.com. It contained excerpts from her taped prison conversations with the sheik. The information was damaging: Stewart, the translator Yousry and the sheik seemed to be enjoying tricking the guards into thinking that she and the sheik were having a lawyer-client conversation, when in fact the sheik was dictating a statement to Yousry. At one point she joked that she should get an acting award. We went back inside. In the elevator, Stewart wondered aloud whether the Center for Constitutional Rights might be withdrawing from her defense ''because they get a lot of their support from Zionists. Well, from Jews, who aren't all Zionists, but some of them are.''
Informed that the meeting had been canceled for logistical reasons, Stewart left, still looking shaky. Her practice was suffering badly; I had heard from a friend of hers that Stewart was more frightened than ever in her life. I asked whether she was just being brave.
''Haven't you heard of Brave Irene?'' Stewart said. ''Irene was my mother's name, it's my middle name. But it's the title of a wonderful children's book. Brave Irene -- there's snow, it's dark and cold, but she soldiers on. I used to give it out when I was a librarian.''
Stewart was due to speak at an antiwar rally in a church on Washington Square. As we came out onto Broadway, it started raining, and she looked around for Poynter. He was waiting at the corner of Third Street in their cluttered Montero. The church was only a few blocks away, but Stewart couldn't make it on foot. They discussed whether to repark.
''Meanwhile, Ralph, I'm drowning.''
''Sorry, my dear.'' Poynter hurried over with an umbrella.
We drove along Third Street. It rained harder. ''Nobody told me it was canceled,'' Stewart said again. For a moment she seemed utterly isolated, and I could feel what it would mean for her and Poynter to be separated by prison as they grow old. ''Maybe it was the leak, Ralph.''
''Maybe it was. If so, it tells us a lot about what we already know is in there.''
She looked at him in exasperation. ''What do we know, Ralph? What do we know?''
''That it's all a bunch of bull.''
A parking place appeared near Sixth Avenue. Stewart turned around. ''Did you know Ralph used to work for Greyhound summers while he was teaching? He was the first black driver.''
''Actually,'' Poynter said, pulling into the space. ''I was the third black driver.''
''Actually,'' she said, ''you're a mile away from the curb.''
At Judson Memorial Baptist Church, the crowd consisted of graying Maoists, students in antiglobalization garb and young Muslim women from South Asians Against Police Brutality and Racism. When Stewart spoke, she said: ''We have had no movement in this country for many years. But what I see tonight, many movements coming together, tells me it could happen again, and we must make it happen. No matter what General Ashcroft says, no matter what they leak to the press, I am guilty of no crime. I'm very moved to see the young people here. I almost had tears when these young women made their testimonies. This is what movement is all about. It gives us back a lot more than we give to it. It gives us a life.'' She was helped from the podium to a standing ovation.
For most American dissidents, opposition to the war on terrorism involves a nod to the loss of innocent American life, a tendentious comparison with the loss of innocent Afghan life, a playing down of the danger posed by Al Qaeda and an exaggeration of the Justice Department's domestic security abuses (which don't need exaggerating). Stewart is more intellectually honest than this. When the towers fell, she felt that her city had been violated and her own life disrupted (her office is below Canal Street). But this warmhearted woman took the slaughter of innocents with a certain coldbloodedness. The U.S. is constantly at war around the world and shouldn't expect its acts to go unanswered, she says.
The Pentagon was ''a better target''; the people in the towers ''never knew what hit them. They had no idea that they could ever be a target for somebody's wrath, just by virtue of being American. They took it personally. And actually, it wasn't a personal thing.'' As for civilian deaths in general: ''I'm pretty inured to the notion that in a war or in an armed struggle, people die. They're in the wrong place, they're in a nightclub in Israel, they're at a stock market in London, they're in the Algerian outback -- whatever it is, people die.'' She mentions Hiroshima and Dresden. ''So I have a lot of trouble figuring out why that is wrong, especially when people are sort of placed in a position of having no other way.''
Stewart doubts the government's version of Osama bin Laden -- nor does she find him too ''repugnant'' to represent, though she allows that she herself might not be able to offer the best defense at this point. As for the sheik, in spite of his extensive connections to Al Qaeda, she still sees him as a fighter for Egyptian self-determination. She backs his Islamism for the same reason that she backed Mao and Ho's Communism: because it resists imperialism. This logic is entirely different from the civil-liberties rationale of most lawyers who defend accused terrorists. The strategy of her own trial will be to mute it in favor of constitutional arguments, but the political nature of Stewart's commitment to the sheik is what led her to violate the SAM's -- an identification so strong that her lack of concern for her own welfare strikes even some supporters as reckless. In her retelling, the effort to deceive prison guards was quite deliberate: a great man was locked down in near-total isolation -- ''Daniel in the lions' den.'' If she couldn't speak for him politically, what had been the point of taking the case in the first place? Her decision was ''a necessary mistake,'' she says, like an affair that ends a marriage.
Brooklyn, where Stewart and Poynter live in a narrow, book-filled town house, provides a quiet base for some of the world's most extreme political groups. It's an unnoticed miracle that there aren't frequent car bombings on Flatbush Avenue and shootouts in Midwood. The Israeli settler movement draws support in the borough; Al Qaeda's predecessor organization had its U.S. headquarters on Atlantic Avenue, not far from the mosques where the sheik used to preach jihad. And remnants of the American left's most hard-core cells have settled around Park Slope. At a book sale on Stewart's behalf, members of the Madame Binh Graphics Collective were donating 20-year-old African liberation posters, while survivors of the May 19 Communist Organization and the United Freedom Front chatted over hors d'oeuvres. The aging American leftists have resurfaced, while the young Arab Islamists are going underground -- a dead movement and a living one, with Lynne Stewart the human link.
In his autobiography, William Kunstler wrote that when he took the sheik's case in 1994, he felt as if it were 1969 again and this were the Chicago conspiracy trial. A better analogy would be to the 1950's, when the foreign enemy was real, the domestic support marginal and the hard questions had to do with the appropriate legal response. There's nothing new about the post-Sept. 11 era, says the man who will try to keep Stewart out of prison, the renowned criminal defender Michael Tigar. He mentions the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, the Palmer raids in 1920, the internment of Japanese-Americans, the McCarthy years: ''The point is that all times of this kind are different times.'' At trial Tigar will argue that, although Stewart violated the SAM's in May 2000, she didn't intend to when she signed them. He will claim that, in speaking out on behalf of the sheik, Stewart was doing what lawyers do, under the protection of the First Amendment.
Dozens of New York criminal defenders showed up for Stewart's arraignment. They talk about the indictment's ''chilling effect'' on the defense of unpopular clients. They say that the charges would never have been brought if not for the terror attacks, and that John Ashcroft is making a scapegoat of an easy target. The leaked affidavit also suggests that Ramsey Clark may have violated the SAM's (he denies it), but he remains unindicted. (David Kelley, the deputy U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, wouldn't comment on the case.)
Frederick Cohn, who represented one of the defendants in the Nairobi Embassy bombing trial, is suing Ashcroft over new Justice Department regulations that allow eavesdropping on lawyer-client conversations without a court order. ''Lawyer jokes are funny, and frequently they're apt,'' Cohn says, ''but a core of lawyers serve a very important function, which is to make sure everybody gets a fair trial. Ashcroft wants the tools to take this away. Then we all march off to the camps.'' The case against Stewart, Cohn says, is inconsequential.
But in conversations with criminal lawyers, including members of what might be called the terror bar, I found many of them less decisive in Stewart's defense than the public chorus suggests. Carl Herman spent a year and a half fighting to keep Mohammed Saddiq Odeh from receiving the death penalty for the Nairobi Embassy bombing. He waited for the day when Odeh would have a change of heart, but it never arrived. On Sept. 11 Herman lost a friend in one of the towers. A few weeks later he had to visit Odeh in the downtown Metropolitan Correctional Centers, and Herman found that he couldn't look his client in the eye. Afterward he heard that the embassy bombers, when told what the loud noise at the World Trade Center had been, exchanged thumbs up. Herman has sworn off defending terrorists. ''We're not talking about phony revolutionaries, or Mafia guys, or nuts,'' he says. ''These guys are really dedicated to wiping out me and my family. I can just find something else to do with my time.''
Even Ron Kuby, a strong defender of Stewart, has rethought many things since Sept. 11. He now regrets having defended El Sayyid A. Nosair, accused of killing the Jewish extremist Meir Kahane. When Sattar, the sheik's paralegal, was arrested along with Stewart, Kuby was ready to represent him at the bail hearing, until Kuby's wife said, ''You don't know what he was doing.'' Kuby reached a decision: ''I sure as hell don't think people who would take my family, put them in purdah and put me up against a wall and shoot me are entitled to my support in that struggle.''
Lawyers are cowards, Kuby told me -- he far more than Lynne Stewart. They live vicariously through their clients. ''Movement'' lawyers, especially, identify with the people they represent. When the lawyer is as loving and committed as Stewart, he said, and the client as charismatic as Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, the identification becomes passionate. ''In the best of cases we identify with their determination, with their courage, and we see the people that maybe we could have been had we the courage to do what they did. And as a result, if you're a good lawyer, you spend a lot of time doing gut checks. And because it's a profession that is so cowardly, enjoying the aura of being those people without ever taking the risks of being those people, it's easy to say: this is the right thing to do, I'm not hurting anyone, this is morally justified. I'm refusing to do it out of fear because I'm a coward, and I've got to change that. I can't succumb to that kind of fear, because if I'm afraid of the government here, I can't do this job.''
Kuby escorted me from his office out onto lower Broadway. He lighted a cigarette and grew melancholy. He asked what I thought of Stewart's case. I said that the men of the legal left had been more savvy, and now she was all alone to pay the price. ''Lynne is dying for our sins?'' Kuby considered it. ''Maybe. History is very unforgiving of people who pick the wrong side at the wrong time in the wrong place. And even if she wins, Lynne is ruined as a lawyer.''
Can't stand Ron Kuby, but this is a very interesting point. I think many "radical lawyers" are doing just that; in other words, Lynne Stewart is living out her hatred of the US through her assortment of blind sheiks and black radicals, but without having to sully her hands by picking up a gun.
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