By: Stephen Downs, Esq.
Lynne Stewart, “the people’s lawyer”, died on March 7, 2017 from cancer. The title of “the people’s lawyer” is quietly given to the lawyer who represents the interests of the poor, the marginalized, and the revolutionaries. Lynne paid a high personal price for her advocacy which refused to concede an inch to the wealthy and powerful, but she earned the respect, and admiration of young lawyers and activists who emulated her as a model in the struggle for freedom.
The day of reckoning in her legal career came with her zealous advocacy for the blind Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, who was convicted (on scant evidence) of conspiracy to attack New York City landmarks. In connection with this representation, Stewart was later convicted of material support for terrorism for issuing a press release about her conversation with the Sheikh, at a time when she believed that Special Administrative Measures, designed to prohibit any dissemination of the Sheikh’s ideas, could not ethically prohibit her from zealous advocacy for her client. Astonishingly, an appellate court ordered her sentence increased, and she was eventually required to serve 10 years in prison, as a political prisoner and as a warning to other radical lawyers on the limits of what they could advocate. With characteristic vigor, on arriving in prison, she promptly organized the prisoners. However, she was diagnosed with terminal cancer, and after 4 years in prison she was given compassionate release when the doctors decided that she had less than a year to live. Characteristic of her fighting spirit, she lived 3 more years in freedom.
Lynne was endlessly giving and inspirational. She volunteered to be the keynote speaker at the conference at Albany Law School in 2010 where Project SALAM was first organized. She stayed in touch with us and gave us encouragement even as she was being run through the wringer of the legal system and consigned to prison. She fought with brilliance, humor and energy, and yet she was modest about her achievements, and seemed as willing to talk about an apple pie recipe as a new legal precedent. She was a skilled warrior, always ready to share a cup of coffee, a funny story, and a good laugh. Lynne and her husband Ralph Pointer were extraordinary raconteurs, often expressing in their stories the deep affection and respect between them as a couple, and with their allies in the struggle. They were irresistible leaders of the movement.
At a time when we need such joyful warriors the most, I fear we’ll not see her like again. But Lynne’s spirit will surely not miss the coming battles. She’ll be there.
Stephen Downs, Esq. was a co-founder of Project SALAM, and former Executive Director of NCPCF.
Photo: Lynne Stewart and her husband, Ralph Poynter