INDICTED AND DEFIANT / Radical attorney Lynne Stewart stand accused of abetting terrorists. Her response: 'Emphatically not guilty.'
The black-robed judge turned to his clerk at 11:59 a.m. and said sharply,
"Call her office." Before the clerk could reach for the phone, Lynne Feltham
Stewart, attorney-at-law, stiff-kneed from arthritis, entered the courtroom in
black skirt and blouse, wearing sensible shoes and schlepping a cloth shopping
bag that contained files for a client's case.
She was one minute early, a reflection of the fine line she has walked all
This is the Lynne Stewart who has represented cop-killers and
revolutionaries. This is the Lynne Stewart who stands accused of passing
messages from imprisoned blind Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman to terrorists in the
Middle East. The sheik was found guilty of conspiracy for his role in the 1993
bombing of the World Trade Center, a case referred to Stewart by former U.S.
Attorney General Ramsey Clark. Now Stewart, a 62-year-old grandmother who was
raised in Bellerose, faces the possibility of spending 18 years in a federal
Stewart, who pleaded "emphatically not guilty," said she has "moments of
apprehension about my case. Sometimes I wake up at 3 a.m. and see my life
passing me by."
In expansive interviews over several days, Stewart and others drew a
picture not of an alleged terrorist abettor, but of a caring patriot who sees
racism, sexism and other forms of oppression that most people overlook. The
world Stewart sees convulses from the rage of the exploited and the oppressed.
Her clients, past and present, describe a woman who both mothered and doggedly
represented them. But a grand jury saw someone else, a person who "unlawfully,
willfully, and knowingly combined, conspired and confederated ... to provide
material support and resources ... to a foreign terrorist organization."
But from all appearances, Stewart, who now lives in Brooklyn, is anything
but a rebel. Pictures of her seven multiethnic grandchildren adorn her office,
as does a 1987 spring training photo of the Mets' 1986 world championship
pitching staff, a gift from her late mother.
Her now-gray hair lays flat on her head and falls to her ears. Her bangs
are stringy. She is soft in body and has soft eyes. Her expansion watchband is
askew, the watch a $10 knockoff bought on Canal Street.
She is anti-capitalism. Religion plays no role in her life. Both, though,
are permitted in her family. Only racism, sexism and being a Yankees fan are
banned. While Stewart, at first blush, might appear a stalwart liberal, she
should not be mistaken for one; she is a radical lawyer and she is defiant.
She was born on Oct. 8, 1939, to Irene and John Feltham, both public school
"My father was a rare breed, a Republican in Queens, but an FDR
Republican," she said.
Her parents were Presbyterian before they joined the Reformed Church in
America. Her father was an elder; her mother baked pies for church suppers.
Lynne Feltham regularly attended Sunday school.
Her heroes when growing up were Jo, a character in "Little Women" who cut
off her hair and sold it to send money to the Union army, and Jackie Robinson,
a Brooklyn Dodger who in 1947 became the first African-American to play Major
League Baseball in the 20th century. She still would be a Dodgers fan if
then-owner Walter O'Malley hadn't shipped those heroes off to Los Angeles in
Virginia Gernes, her friend since they met in 1953 while attending Jamaica
High School and later transferred to Martin Van Buren High School together,
recalled: "Even in our protected Queens of the Eisenhower years, there were
plenty of discomfiting issues that caught Lynne's eye, particularly civil
rights and sexism."
Feltham and Gernes flouted high school girls' basketball rules that in
their time didn't allow girls to dribble.
After Feltham, a newspaper and yearbook editor, Arista member and violin
player, graduated from Van Buren, she spent two years at Hope College in
Holland, Mich., a school run by the Reformed Church in America. Although she
was almost a straight- A student, the newspaper editor, a basketball team
member, and still a churchgoer because it was required, she said she "was
denied membership in Phi Beta Kappa because they thought I didn't represent the
true ideal of a Hope College woman. They were right."
Stewart said she was shunned for suggesting that the school host a
Christmas party for farm workers' children, and for her proclivity to speak her
In 1960, for one semester, she attended an honors program at American
University in Washington, D.C.
"It was still a segregated city," she said. "We sat-in at lunch counters."
There, she met and soon married Robert Stewart, a fellow student. They
moved to Staten Island, and Lynne Feltham Stewart became pregnant. In 1961, she
graduated from Staten Island's Wagner College with a degree in political
science, still very much a liberal, and gave birth to Brenna.
The defining period of her life began when she was 22 and went to work as a
school librarian at PS 175 in Harlem.
"I thought I was educated," Stewart said. "And then I came to Harlem and
saw what we were doing to black people, the opportunities they didn't have. I
inherited this library. Students weren't allowed to take books home. They were
barely allowed to touch them, and most of the kids couldn't read them, anyway."
The degradation and racism she witnessed there flipped her switch. A light
turned on that altered her view of the world, a view that now focused on the
indignities and wrongs she saw being piled on minorities.
While at PS 175, she met Ralph Poynter, five years her senior, who taught
grades 4, 5 and 6. He was in the forefront of efforts to gain community control
"Black kids were under-taught and undereducated and teachers lied about
it," Poynter said. "They told parents that it was only their kid that was
failing when it was almost everyone. It wasn't the children's fault. It still
isn't. It wasn't about white teachers or black teachers. It was about teaching."
Stewart saw that significant change would never happen unless ordinary
people - such as she - took up the cause. And she did. She joined Poynter in
the fight to get black principals as well as committed and caring teachers
appointed to Harlem schools, to win contracts for maintenance workers and to
allow black businesses to bid on school purchase contracts.
Poynter was married, and so was Stewart, but their friendship became more
than just friendship.
"We're not paradigms," Stewart said of their relationship.
Poynter had two more children and Stewart one with their respective
spouses. Stewart's marriage ended in a Mexican divorce in 1965, when her second
child, Geoffrey, was a year old. Poynter separated from his wife, but did not
divorce until 1978.
Stewart brags that Poynter used to hang a big chain in the middle of his
blackboard and chant to his students, "'Break the chain, break the chain.'" And
instead of the Pledge of Allegiance, he would have the children recite, "'We
are the African people. We are the African people.'
"He could out-teach anyone at the school," Stewart said. "He could command
their attention. Kids in his classes jumped years in reading levels."
Poynter was raised "black and proud," and more. In Pennsylvania, his
parents used to pay the milkman's bill for a poor white family on the block.
When Poynter found out about it, he was angry, but his mother told him,
"'Shouldn't that white child have milk, too?'"
"She taught me who 'my people' really are," Poynter said.
Chemistry aside, it was Poynter's inclusive political agenda that attracted
Stewart to him.
Poynter's attempts to organize led to demonstrations that sometimes
resulted in violent encounters with the police. He was fired and rehired twice.
After his third confrontation with police, he was convicted of felonious
assault, lost his teacher's license and was sentenced to six months in jail.
Stewart transferred to PS 64 on the Lower East Side to be nearer the
motorcycle shop that Poynter opened soon after getting out of jail in 1969. She
organized parents at that school, too. And she and Ralph had a child of their
own, Zenobia, in 1971.
One day that year, she says, she went to Ralph and said, "'I can't do this
anymore. I'm going to end up an eccentric bag lady.' That's how they made me
feel at school. I would say something at a meeting and the teachers would move
on as if I hadn't spoken, as if I wasn't even there. Ralph asked me what I
wanted to do. I told him I had always thought about law. He said, 'Do it.' I
had three kids, one still a babe in my arms, and he said, 'Do it.'"
In her application to Rutgers Law School, she wrote, "The voiceless need a
voice and I would like to be that voice." She became active in the anti-war
movement at Rutgers and graduated in 1975.
Stewart found a job at a small criminal defense firm in Manhattan. The firm
mostly represented people who sold marijuana and other drugs, "money cases,"
Stewart said. She was kept in the back doing research and writing and saw no
future for herself as a trial lawyer there. In 1978, she quit and opened her
own practice on Charles Street in the West Village.
"I must have represented 1,000 battered wives," she said. "In those days,
there was nothing for them. I got the orders of protection and Ralph served
them on their husbands. I was representing people in the gay community, too.
New Jersey still had those sodomy laws and used peepholes."
She moved her office to downtown Broadway two years ago. On a recent Sunday
morning, she and Poynter, 68 and built like a boxer, parked themselves in the
brick-walled waiting area, containers of coffee in hand, on old brown leather
couches near a table stacked with neat piles of journals, a New Yorker, an
Amnesty International, even a People.
On the walls hang a macram�, an abstract painting with an alligator and a
vintage Black Panther poster, crossed rifles and the words, "We want self
Self-determination is Stewart's creed. The crossed rifles become a means to
that end, the last resort. Her agenda is not liberal, even when it comes to
"If you keep guns away from ordinary citizens," she said, "you take away
the peasants' power to revolt that was central to our Declaration of
Independence and inherent in the Second Amendment."
On this issue, she and Attorney General John Ashcroft, who exploded her to
prominence when he personally announced her indictment in April, are in full
That Poynter helped inform Stewart's politics is an understatement.
Likewise, Stewart honed Poynter's sword. They end each other's sentences. They
are each other's historians as dates fade and one organization's battles meld
into another's. They laugh easily with each other, as do only the best of
friends. And they work together. He is her firm's investigator and, since the
indictment, her bodyguard, too.
Her favorite clients are "those whose beliefs are rooted in traditional
roles of freedom fighters," she said.
But, like most criminal lawyers, she'll represent just about anyone,
drawing the line only at child abuse and pedophilia because of what she
described as her "motherly schoolteacher mentality." She would also not likely
represent a "Klan member or a Croatian general," she said. "When you take a
case, you have to be able to give it 100 percent."
She gave 100 percent to Larry Davis, who, in a highly publicized 1988
shootout with New York police, wounded six officers. She, assisted by William
Kunstler and Stanley Cohen, got him acquitted of attempted murder, although not
of the gun charges.
Stewart described Davis as a South Bronx boy who, in a moment of crisis,
used self-defense, standing up in the face of certain death. "But he had no
politics whatsoever," she said ruefully.
She affirmed what she told a New York Times reporter in 1995, that she
doesn't believe in "anarchistic violence but in directed violence. That would
be violence directed at the institutions which perpetuate capitalism, racism
and sexism, and the people who are the appointed guardians of these
institutions, and accompanied by popular support."
By way of explanation, she said things would not have changed but for the
John Browns and the Molly Maguires, that Catholic repression would have
continued in Northern Ireland but for the IRA, that the Weather Underground
influenced the end of the Vietnam War.
To that end, she represented:
David Gilbert, a former member of the Weather Underground, who was
convicted of assisting the Black Liberation Army in the 1981 Brinks armored-
car robbery in Nyack, N.Y., which resulted in the death of two police officers
and a security guard.
Richard Williams, a member of the Ohio 7, a group that espoused anti-
apartheid views, who was convicted of participating in a bombing campaign
against corporate offices and military installations in which one person was
Richard Williams again, when he was tried and convicted for killing a New
Abdel-Rahman, who was convicted in 1995 of a criminal conspiracy that
included the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center and a plot to bomb city
landmarks and tunnels.
As to the sheik, Stewart describes the spiritual leader of el Gamaa't
Islamia, an Egyptian political independence movement, as "an innocent man,
"In this country, having beliefs, even violent ones, is not a crime," she
says, maintaining that the sheik never did any act in furtherance of a
The judge and jury disagreed, and Abdel-Rahman is serving a sentence of
life in prison plus 65 years.
The fact that Abdel-Rahman espouses many views that appear diametrically
opposed to Stewart's ideal world of "inclusive, dynamic societies in which we
all become enriched by each other's cultures" does not dissuade her.
"I believe in self-determination," she said. "His is one way to lift off
the yoke of imperialism. If the next step is worse, then the people will rise
again. It's a process of development."
Stewart concedes that if Abdel- Rahman's followers had their way, the first
step would likely be an Egyptian society governed by men who would strictly
interpret the Shariah, Islamic law.
Stewart, who is free on a $500,000 personal recognizance bond, was indicted
with three others, one of whom is Mohammed Yousry, 45, of East Elmhurst, an
interpreter. Yousry accompanied Stewart and the sheik's other lawyers, one of
whom is Ramsey Clark, who represented Abdel-Rahman on appeal, on visits to him
in prison. Abdel-Rahman was forbidden contact with the outside world, other
than his lawyers, by Special Administrative Measures (known as SAM) ordered by
the government "for the purpose of protecting persons against the risk of death
or serious bodily injury." Stewart, who does not speak Arabic, is alleged to
have spoken English to mask unlawful Arabic conversations between Yousry and
the sheik in violation of the SAM.
She is also charged with telling the press that Abdel-Rahman had withdrawn
his support for a cease-fire between the Egyptian government and el Gamaa't
Islamia, which is on the U.S. government's list of terrorist organizations.
Factions of el Gamaa't Islamia supported the cease-fire that began soon after
the November 1997 attack in Luxor, Egypt, which killed 58 foreign tourists and
four Egyptians. El Gamaa't Islamia claimed responsibility for that onslaught.
Two clients have fired Stewart since her indictment - Salvatore Aparo, aka
Sammy Meatball, and Sammy "the Bull" Gravano - both organized- crime figures.
"Those kind of guys like good lawyers, but they're very conservative,"
Unless the charges, which stem from Stewart's alleged conduct between 1999
and May 2001, are dismissed, she will soon find herself in a chair usually
reserved for her clients. She will be represented by Michael Tigar, a renowned
attorney who has a long history of defending high-profile clients whose alleged
crimes have political and constitutional twists, such as Terry Nichols in the
Oklahoma City bombing, Angela Davis, H. Rap Brown, the Chicago Eight and Allen
"[My] indictment is meant to be inflammatory and overreaching," Stewart
says with measured anger. "It criminalizes what any good lawyer would do. The
charges are not really about my politics. It's about their politics and our
Any good lawyer, according to Stewart, would act in a client's best
interest, which for Abdel-Rahman would mean not allowing him to be "entombed by
the government" - which she defined as being silenced in a First Amendment
sense. "I mean there are lines I would not cross for a client's best interests,
like helping a client to escape, but we are talking about America, and in
America we're supposed to have a free marketplace of ideas."
Assistant U.S. Attorney and Chief of the Organized Crime and Terrorism Unit
Joseph Bianco, who is the lead prosecutor in Stewart's case, would not comment
on Stewart's characterizations of the charges against her, unless a chuckle
could be considered comment. Stewart's next court date, June 12, will be for a
status conference in front of U.S. District Court Judge John G. Koeltl. Bianco
said a trial date might be set at that time.
Stewart hopes there will never be a trial, and so motions will soon be
filed on her behalf that will challenge the legal basis of the charges. If the
motions succeed, that's the end of it. But if not, and there is a trial, the
government can expect to meet fierce opposition from this round-faced woman
with a generous smile.
"I see it as the culmination of everything I have fought for all my life."