Lawyer Faces Sentencing for Aiding Terrorists

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Civil rights lawyer Lynne Stewart will be sentenced in New York for aiding terrorists. Stewart was convicted last year of allowing her imprisoned client, the blind Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, to communicate with his followers by giving a press release to Reuters.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

Civil rights lawyer Lynne Stewart will be sentenced today in New York on charges of aiding terrorists. Stewart was convicted in 2005 of allowing her imprisoned client - Blind Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman - to communicate with his followers by giving a news release to Reuters. Defense attorneys say Stewart made a mistake, but is in no way a terrorist and should not go to prison.

NPR's Margot Adler reports.

MARGOT ADLER: Lynne Stewart is feeling some stress.

Ms. LYNNE STEWART (Civil Rights Lawyer): My husband said I've lost my sense of humor. I don't think I've lost it completely, but I will say it's certainly trying times. It's certainly worrisome times.

ADLER: Her lawyer and the government's lawyers have submitted pre-sentencing documents - hundreds of pages. In Lynne Stewart's defense have been more than 400 letters from impoverished clients she has defended, from her children - two of them lawyers - from former judges, even a former U.S. attorney. They argue that Stewart, a 67-year-old grandmother of 13 who has breast cancer, has already suffered the greatest loss. Her felony conviction prevents her from ever practicing law again. The government is asking that Stewart be sentenced to 30 years for, quote, “blatantly and repeatedly violating prison regulations that were designed to prevent terrorists from communicating with their followers or with the media.”

Andrew McCarthy, now a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, was the lead prosecutor in the trial of the blind Sheikh. Lynne Stewart was the lead defense attorney. Rahman was convicted in a 1993 plot to blow up New York City landmarks. McCarthy says during the trial, he respected Stewart, trusted her word, and yet he believes her sentence should be severe.

Mr. ANDREW MCCARTHY (Senior Fellow, Foundation for the Defense of Democracies): I don't really think that we can mince words or actions when we're dealing with somebody who's been convicted of a terrorism offense. I think that has to be treated as serious as anything we have in the criminal law.

ADLER: In a letter to the Judge John Koeltl, Stewart has expressed her regrets. Her goal was to improve the prison conditions of her client, she says, but she was naïve not to realize that what might have been considered legitimate before 9/11 would now be interpreted as criminal.

At that time, I didn't see this, she wrote. I see and understand it now. She says she should have fought the constitutionality of the prison regulations in court. She now says she wants Judge Koeltl to see…

Ms. STEWART: My flaws, my weaknesses, my tendency to let my heart run ahead of my head.

ADLER: And most of all, she wants to set the record straight, to dispel the notion that…

Ms. STEWART: If you're a left-winger, as I am, and maybe a radical left-winger, as I'm always called, that that somehow feeds into an Islamic kind of an agenda. The two couldn't be further apart. But we're inclusive people. They're exclusive people. They want a theocracy.

ADLER: Stewart is hoping that the judge will see the government's request for 30 years as draconian. Since the Supreme Court struck down the mandatory federal sentencing guidelines two years ago, Judge Koeltl has some leeway. Many defenders of Lynne Stewart believe a harsh sentence will have a chilling effect on the willingness of lawyers to defend unpopular clients. But former prosecutor Andrew McCarthy says he believes lawyers, like cops, can dance too close to the fire.

Mr. MCCARTHY: She lost were lines were, and she went over them. You know, she failed to police herself.

ADLER: Stewart's defenders say defying a prison regulation and giving a message to a reporter is certainly not worth 30 years. As for Stewart herself, she worries that if she goes to prison, she will be treated as a terrorist and even be subject to the same regulations as the Sheikh - unable to communicate to children, grandchildren and family. The sentencing takes place in federal court today.

Margot Adler, NPR News, New York.

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