By Maria Telesco
If you were in serious trouble, maybe accused of terrorism, the best court-appointed lawyer you could hope for would be Lynne Stewart. A criminal defense attorney for more than 30 years, judges would often assign Stewart to represent those who were accused of crimes so outrageous that other attorneys wouldn’t touch them with a 10-foot pole.
Stewart has dedicated her life to defending the oppressed. Now, at age 74, her reward for a lifelong career advocating for the downtrodden was to become one of them herself. Convicted by a vindictive government for the “crime” of doing her job too well, she was sentenced to what virtually amounts to a death penalty.
The “Blind Sheikh,” Omar Abdel Rahman, was accused and convicted of conspiracy regarding the World Trade Center bombings in 1993. Along with co-counsel Abdeen Jabara and former Attorney General Ramsey Clark, at Clark’s invitation, Stewart was assigned to defend Sheikh Rahman. She provided a strong defense for her client.
Then, President George W. Bush and Attorney General John Ashcroft charged her with conspiracy to “provide material support to a terrorist activity.” Jabara and Clark, however, were never charged with any “crime.”
Stewart joined the legal team in 1995. Later that year (or in 1996, depending on the source), she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She had successful treatment, and the cancer was said to be in remission. In October 2006, she was sentenced to 28 months in federal prison. However, she remained free on bail while her case was being appealed. Some judges and politicians didn’t like that short sentence and tried to convince the trial judge that 30 or even 40 years would be a more suitable punishment. Eventually, the judge changed Stewart’s sentence to 10 years.
Stewart and her husband, Ralph Poynter, visited Fresno in February 2007. The Fresno Center for Nonviolence hosted them at the Mennonite Community Church in southeast Fresno. They were on a one-week California tour, accompanied by several advocates for true justice in the so-called criminal “justice” system. They discussed the Sheik’s trial, Stewart’s trial and the breast cancer. They also updated us regarding the status of Pennsylvania death row inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal, whose sentence has since then been changed to life without parole.
In 2009, Stewart learned that the cancer was no longer in remission. Surgery was scheduled at New York’s renowned Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. Before she could actually have the surgery, her bail was revoked arbitrarily in November 2009. She was ordered to surrender immediately, which she did, to begin her 10-year prison term. She was sent to a federal prison hospital in Carswell, Texas, away from her family and supporters.
At that time, New York doctors believed immediate surgery could stop, or at least slow, the metastasis of the disease. She has been at Carswell for four years and thus far has received little or no treatment. A surgeon there said recently that her case was “the worst he had seen,” with metastasis to the lymph nodes and lungs.
A 1984 law permits prisoners who are elderly, seriously ill, near death or in need of medical care that cannot be provided in prison to apply for “compassionate release.” The warden at Carswell is said to have refused Stewart’s application because, he believes, the person has to be literally “on his/her deathbed” before applying.
More detailed information about Stewart’s case and a petition to save her life is available at the Justice for Lynne Stewart Web site (www.lynnestewart.org). Petitions are also available at www.change.org/petitions/petition-to-free-lynne-stewart-save-her-life-release-her-now-2. Please sign a petition now, tell others to do so and work to save the life of this remarkable woman.
Maria Telesco is a retired registered nurse who has volunteered in various aspects of prison ministry for more than 25 years. Contact her at email@example.com.