I Became the Defendant

By Lynne Stewart Sep 20, 2005

In April 2002, I was walking down the stairs of my house. I heard my husband, Ralph, saying, "I don’t see any badges, and I don’t see any warrant either." Ralph has had troubles with the law as a political activist, so I said, "Ralph, take it easy, we’ll get you out by lunch time."

Then I saw that the police were all in plainclothes. One said, "We’re not here for him, we’re here for you." I handed my bag to Ralph and told him to call my son Geoff, a lawyer and the press. The police cuffed me and put me in the car.

The arrest was like a cloud getting ready to rain on me. I was never again going to be just a lawyer. I was becoming "the defendant."

I started practicing law in 1976. I defended a lot of the kids I had taught in public schools, as well as the Nyack Brinks and the Ohio Seven. In the late 1980s, I defended Larry Davis, a Bronx youth who had more than 25 cops come to arrest him. He shot six, eluded them and was on the run for three weeks. He was a folk hero after Eleanor Bumpers, Michael Stewart and Carol Glover had all been killed by police. He was acquitted by reason of self-defense.

When I took the case of Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, the blind cleric accused of conspiring to bomb landmarks, I didn’t think it was a turning point. The feds associated him with the first World Trade Center bombing, but there was no proof. He was in California at the time. They had taped his phone conversations for months and had nothing. I believed that my client was falsely convicted and that prejudice had triumphed.

The press picked up some threatening statements that the Sheik made during his first year of isolation. The government then imposed special regulations that, except for the legal work, he’s not allowed to communicate outside of jail and not allowed to talk to the media. We signed statements affirming that we would abide by that. We then brought a conditions lawsuit, and the Bureau of Prisons moved him to the best medical facility. By then, we had lost the appeal and been denied by the Supreme Court.

In May 2000, the Sheik gave us the press release saying that he no longer supported the ceasefire between his group and the Egyptian government. We hoped that maintaining his constituency would generate some concessions while he served his term. We didn’t know that the FBI had wired the room in which our visit took place.

There was nothing in the special regulations that said, "If you disobey this, you can be indicted." It said that I could be kept from seeing and representing my client. I thought, if they cut me off we’ll litigate it, and certainly my co-counsel would keep representing him.

Two months later, the U.S. Attorney in charge of the New York terrorism department told me I wouldn’t be allowed to see my client until I signed a new statement acknowledging the regulations. After discussing some language changes, I had no problem signing. By July 2001, I was again able to visit the Sheik.

The day of the arrest, I learned that everything went back to that 2000 press release. I decided not to do the "hiding under the raincoat" routine. I understood that this prosecution was meant to send a message to the whole legal profession to back off and a message to the American public that the government was going to take care of them without these pesky lawyers getting in the way. Prosecutors are always flexing their muscle to see how far they can push the law.   I don’t think even they believed they could get a conviction on the terrorism charges. But they brought in all the sexy stuff, including pictures and a video of bin Laden. The judge told the jury that bin Laden had nothing to do with me or the case.

The conviction, which means I can no longer practice law, came as a total surprise. I really thought we had explained to the jury about the regulations, about attorney client privilege. When the verdict was read, three women jurors wept openly. The cloud that had moved over me finally opened up.

Now, Muslims say to me that I did a good job for the Sheik. I think they appreciate not only that I represented him, but also that I showed respect. I didn’t use my skin privilege to turn on my codefendants, to say, "I don’t speak Arabic. They did it all." In the Black and Latino community, they say, "They finally got the Larry Davis lawyer."

Lynne Stewart (lynnestewart.org), a New York criminal defense/human rights lawyer, was named one of the top ten criminal defense lawyers in Manhattan and the City University of New York’s Public Interest Lawyer of the Year. She faces a potential 30-year sentence on September 23.