The lynching and disbarring of civil rights lawyer Lynne Stewart, who because she has terminal cancer was recently released from prison after serving four years of a 10-year sentence, is a window into the collapse of the American legal system. Stewart—who has stood up to state power for more than three decades in order to give a voice to those whom authorities seek to crush, who has spent her life defending the poor and the marginalized, who wept in court when one of her clients was barred from presenting a credible defense—is everything a lawyer should be in an open society. But we no longer live in an open society. The persecution of Stewart is the persecution of us all.
Stewart, 74, is living with her husband in her son’s house in New York City after being released from a Texas prison a month ago. Because she is disbarred she cannot perform any legal work. “Can’t even work in a law office,” she said softly last week when I interviewed her at the Brooklyn home. “I miss it so terribly. I liked it. I liked the work.”
Her career as one of the country’s most renowned civil rights lawyers coincided with the fall of our legal system. She said that when she started practicing law in the 1970s it was a “golden era” in which a series of legal decisions—including rulings affecting police lineups and what information and evidence the government had to turn over to defendants on trial—created a chance for a fair defense. But these legal advances were reversed in a string of court decisions that, especially after 9/11, made the state omnipotent. As citizens were stripped of power, she said, “a death of the spirit of the bar” occurred. Lawyers gave up, she said. They no longer saw defending people accused of crime as “a calling, something that you did because you were answering a higher voice.”
“I don’t want to make anything a kind of religious thing, it wasn’t that, but you know, you defended people because they were up against the mightiest organism in the universe: the government of United States, whether they were state or federal,” she said Thursday evening as we sat with her husband, Ralph Poynter, at her son’s dining room table.
Stewart, working with former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark and lawyer Abdeen Jabara in 1995, was the lead trial counsel for Omar Abdel Rahman, an Egyptian Muslim known as “the Blind Sheikh,” who was convicted in October of that year for alleged involvement in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. He received life in prison plus 65 years, a sentence Stewart called “outlandish.” She said Abdel Rahman was put on trial not for any crimes he committed but because the Egyptian government of Hosni Mubarak, as well as Washington, was frightened of his influence over the Egyptian masses. The United States, along with Egypt, wanted to “take him off the scene” and “get him put away where he would no longer exert the influence he had.” The cleric, now 75 and in poor health, is imprisoned in the medical wing of the Butner Federal Correctional Complex in North Carolina.
The court, through numerous rulings, refused to let Stewart mount her defense, ensuring that the government prosecutors would not be challenged. The proceedings were a tawdry show trial, a harbinger of the many judicial assaults against Muslims in the United States after the events of Sept. 11, 2001. I was based in Egypt at the time of the trial as the Middle East bureau chief for The New York Times. I remember being stunned at the repeated mendacity of the government prosecutors, who blamed Abdel Rahman for terrorist attacks he had, in fact, publicly denounced. The prosecutors, for example, accused him of orchestrating the killing of 62 people in 1997 in Luxor, Egypt, although the sheikh at the time condemned the attack and had no connection with the Egyptian group that carried out the massacre. When the guilty verdict was read, Stewart burst into tears, “the only time I ever cried in the courtroom.”
Stewart continued to visit the sheikh after the sentencing. Three years after the trial the government severely curtailed his ability to communicate with the outside world, even through his lawyers, under special administrative measures known as SAMs.
Abdel Rahman asked Stewart during a prison visit in 2000 to release a statement from him to the press concerning a negotiated cease-fire between the Egyptian government and militants. The Clinton administration did not prosecute Stewart for conveying the press release, although she was admonished and prohibited from seeing her client for several months. The Bush administration, however, in April 2002, with the country baying for blood after the attacks of 9/11, decided to prosecute her for the two-year-old press release. Stewart says she never expected to be charged for releasing the press statement.
Minutes before her arrest on April 9, 2002, her husband, who later would organize the successful fight to win her a compassionate release from prison after she diagnosed with breast cancer, was outside on the stoop of their house, which, she said, “in New York is where you go sit on the steps in the summertime when you can’t afford to go to East Hampton.” She heard him in a heated conversation.
“I go to the door and I hear him saying ‘I don’t see any badge, I don’t see any warrant, what are you doing here, anyway?’ ” she said.
Assuming Ralph was being arrested, she told him to take it easy, she would have him home by lunchtime.
“I come around the door and the guy looks and says—and he was clearly a cop, you know, the cheap shoes—and he says, ‘We’re not here for you. We’re here for her,’ pointing to me,” she said. “I was flabbergasted.”
FBI agents took her from her home, and she was released later on a $500,000 bond signed by her three children.
U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft came to New York in April 2002 to announce that the Justice Department had indicted Stewart, along with a paralegal and an interpreter, on grounds of materially aiding a terrorist organization. Ashcroft that night went on “Late Show With David Letterman” to tell the nation of the indictment as part of the Bush administration’s “war on terror.”
In Stewart’s trial the government again endlessly spewed myths about Islamic terrorism. It demanded a staggering 30-year sentence. U.S. District Judge John Koeltl instructed the jury more than 750 times that the photos of Osama bin Laden and the 2001 World Trade Center attacks shown to the jury by the government on a 10-by-12-foot screen were not relevant to the case. Stewart was sentenced, to most people’s astonishment, to 28 months.
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After the sentencing, Stewart publicly declared that passing along the information from Abdel Rahman had been “based on my understanding of what the client needed, what a lawyer was expected to do” and “was necessary” and that, in the same circumstances, she would “do it again.” Subsequently, a federal appeals court under the Barack Obama administration demanded that the district judge reconsider her sentence. She was handed a new sentence by Koeltl—10 years.
The federal government’s orchestration of fear, Stewart said, has made the country increasingly deferential to authority—especially white, male authority. In the Carswell maximum-security prison, the women’s facility where she was incarcerated, she heard numerous accounts of gross injustices endured by poor women. She frequently asked some of these women why they had not demanded a trial rather than submit to a plea deal, or why they had not stood up and proclaimed their innocence. The answer, she said, was always the same: “I was afraid. I was afraid.”
She blames the wrecking of the legal system, in part, on the skyrocketing costs of law school. Law graduates, she said, have to “mortgage their souls in order to go to law school.” When she applied to Rutgers Law School in 1971 the school’s commitment to making sure half the class was women allowed her to get a scholarship. The financial aid, along with the low state tuition, made it possible for her to attend.
In later years she operated a law practice in Greenwich Village for poor clients. Her office was above her husband’s motorcycle shop on the ground floor. “I could take whatever pay stub I wanted,” she said.
The rise of corporate-backed organizations and think tanks designed to veer every public institution away from traditional liberal democratic values has dismantled our civil society, she said. The right-wing Federalist Society, after its founding in 1982, mounted a frontal assault on the legal system. Stewart, after Stanford University asked her to speak there in 2002, arrived on campus to find that the Federalist Society had pressured the university to rescind the invitation. Sympathetic students found her a place to talk, and Federalist Society members peppered her with hostile questions at the event. She was able to knock back their verbal harassment because, she said, she was “a trained trial attorney who had been in the business for almost 30 years” at that time.
The federal government by the 1980s, she said, was “mopping up” the remnants of radical activists, many of whom had been underground for years. She and other civil rights attorneys were able to battle on behalf of these political radicals, but by the end of the 1980s the state had finished its hunts for underground activists. And lawyers, Stewart said, “were no longer part of the game.”
Stewart, who spent a decade in the Harlem school system as a librarian before going to law school, said working with those considered by society to be “throwaway kids” meant that she knew the injustices of the system. The system, she said, has “failed them [poor children] from beginning to end.” This failure to provide elemental justice, spawned by the so-called war on drugs and massive rates of incarceration, especially for poor people of color, was soon replicated within the courts in the name of the war on terror. And this corrosion has spread. Basic legal protections, stripped first from the poor and then from Muslims, have been stripped from us all.
I asked Stewart if there had been a specific moment when she lost hope in the judicial system.
“I always believed, Chris, that I could do it,” she said. “You know, it’s like, you’re the last man. You’re like the kicker [when the opposing team is] running the ball back. You’re the only one between the goal post and everything. But I was there. They had to get by me. If they couldn’t get by me, then they couldn’t win. I have enough ego and belief in myself to say I didn’t believe they could do that every time, that I could win, that I could make a difference. I think I did make a difference for a lot of people, even people who got convicted.”
The climate in the nation’s courtrooms charged irrevocably after 9/11, she said. The occasional victories she and other civil rights lawyers were able to win before then became nearly impossible to replicate.
“The playing field suddenly changed and everything favored the prosecution, certainly in federal cases,” she said. “There was no level playing field anymore. It was like if you were the last guy standing and you had to keep them from making the goal you were at the six-inch line trying to do it. It was impossible to stop them. They controlled it. They controlled what the charges were. They controlled whether an adjournment would be given. They determined whether the cooperation is worthy, and everybody must cooperate, and it changed into a very different system, certainly on the federal level.”
In her own trial the government presented audio recordings of her meetings with Abdel Rahman in the prison in Rochester, Minn. The taping of her conversations, which before the federal Patriot Act would have violated attorney-client privilege, is now legal.
She said of the 9/11 attacks, “We’ve never explored why. Why does this happen? Why, what compelled 21 young men to give up their lives to do this thing? No, we’ve never, we don’t want to look at that. We don’t want to know why.”
“We continue the facade that we are fair,” she said, “that we have this Constitution we respect, and we can rely on, and that we can embrace. You can’t do that, that’s my constitutional rights, etc. When really they’re [our constitutional rights] a puff of smoke. They don’t really exist.”
I asked her what she had learned from being incarcerated.
“I don’t think I ever appreciated the unrelenting stress” of being in prison, she said. “That you’re always waiting for something to come down. That there’s such arbitrary authority. Guard A says, ‘Go down those stairs, use the stairs.’ Guard B says, ‘You can’t use the stairs, you’re not permitted on the stairs.’ And you say, ‘But Guard A just said. ...’ ‘I don’t care what he said, this is my rule!’ That kind of arbitrary thing, you’re always guessing. What does this guy, what does this woman, want me to do? Where am I? Where is this? And that’s 24/7.”
“You’re always on the cusp of doing the wrong thing, or getting in trouble for something,” she said. “I wrote a letter for a woman, and in order to make a copy I emailed it to Ralph.” She went on: “It was basically asking a judge to stay any decision because they were going to take all of her pension as payment for what she had done. And she wanted to get this letter in right away. So I emailed it to [Ralph] and for that I lost, I think, about three months of commissary, and email.”
She said, “It’s almost impossible to organize prisoners in this day and age to stand up, to become a unit, to say no to certain things.”
“I found it virtually impossible to convince the women at Carswell that they should not be always thinking that what happened to them was personal,” she said. “They should be looking at political answers, that where they ended up was not because of some personal lack or weakness but because the political system has designated them to be there as one of the kick-arounds, as one of the not-for-consumption.”
“Why do you think that is?” I asked.
“I think ... television has a lot to do with it,” she said. “There’s a certain idealized life. People that are in trouble get there because they have done it to themselves.” She said that many of the women incarcerated with her lacked self-esteem.
“The women I’ve left behind” are “the one real shadow on my tremendous joy at being home,” she said. “I can no longer even communicate with [them] because the conditions of my probation are that I may not associate with any felons. So I can’t even write to dear Mara, what happened with your case? Someone who got 20 years because she sold some heroin and then a guy died a week later, and they used that murder to enhance her sentence, completely contrary to everything we ever learned.”
One of the saddest moments in prison, she said, was mail call. The names of those who had letters would be read. Some women “waited for their name to be called and it never happened.” Those who did not get mail or visits, she said, “become more and more institutionalized.”
“The world of the prison is the only world; the outside world does not exist for them anymore,” she said.
“I’m not waiting for the working class to make the revolution,” she said. “I think that’s a day long gone by. That might have happened in the ’30s. It didn’t. We have to look at a new way, some new force.”
She said that although she is disbarred she will continue to be a catalyst for change. She quoted Rosa Luxemburg, who said that radicals should at once alleviate human misery and do political work. Stewart said she will continue to fight for the some 150 political prisoners, mostly African-Americans, who have been in prison for decades because they belonged to radical groups such as the Black Panthers or the Black Liberation Army.
“My other goal is not to turn my back on the women in prison,” she said.
She stressed the importance of community.
“The most important thing is don’t let yourself get isolated,” she said. “Don’t feel that you’re the only one in the room that thinks this way and you must be crazy or something, and they’re going to get you because you’re the only one. Find the other people who think like you. They’re out there. There are people out there. There are groups. There’s everyone from the raging grannies right up to the very serious lefties, but there’s somebody out there, make sure you’re not all alone. That’s the worst part of what we face these days. As long as you’re with other people you have a fighting chance, and you can organize more people.”
“This is a pretty loveless world we live in,” she concluded. “We have lots of romantic love. We have lots of ‘Sex and the City.’ But real love, love that is the kind that saves people, and makes the world better, and makes you go to bed with a smile on your face, that love is lacking greatly. You have to search for that.”