Workers Vanguard No. 1108

24 March 2017


Courageous Radical Lawyer

Lynne Stewart


Radical attorney Lynne Stewart died in Brooklyn on March 7 at the age of 77. The immediate cause was a series of strokes which, together with metastasized breast cancer, finally drained the life out of this tireless fighter for the oppressed. Lynne’s death will be keenly felt by the incarcerated opponents of the U.S. government, for whom she fought until the end. Without her, the world is a lonelier, crueler place for these prisoners and their families. We offer our condolences to Lynne’s husband, Ralph Poynter, and her entire family.

Born in Brooklyn and raised in Queens, New York, the young Lynne Stewart worked as a librarian in an all-black school in Harlem, developing her political consciousness through direct exposure to and confrontation with the entrenched racism of this society. She went on to law school at Rutgers. A proponent of 1960s New Left radicalism, Lynne dedicated herself to linking struggles of those in the outside world with those behind bars, fighting to keep militant leftists and others reviled by the capitalist state out of the clutches of its prison system.

Paying tribute to the work of Lynne and Ralph, class-war prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal noted that they fought for decades for such groups as the Black Panthers and the Puerto Rican Young Lords, “but mostly, they fought for the freedom of the poor and dispossessed of New York’s Black and Brown ghettoes.” One of her most prominent cases was the defense of Larry Davis, a young black man in the Bronx who in November 1986 shot his way out of a murderous siege by cops and then became a folk hero for escaping an enormous manhunt for more than two weeks. With Lynne Stewart and William Kunstler arguing Davis’s right to self-defense, in November 1988 he was acquitted of the attempted murder of nine police officers. This stunning legal victory on behalf of victims of racist NYPD terror made Lynne a marked woman in the eyes of the state.

Lynne was also part of the legal team for the Ohio 7, who were prosecuted for their roles in a radical group that took credit for bank “expropriations” and bombings of symbols of U.S. imperialism, such as military and corporate offices, in the late 1970s and ’80s. Having already been sentenced to decades in prison, the Ohio 7 were further prosecuted by the Reagan and Bush Senior administrations under “seditious conspiracy” laws as part of an attempt to criminalize leftist political activity. The government spent over $10 million but failed to win a conviction—a victory for the working class and for all who would oppose the policies of the capitalist rulers. The Ohio 7’s Jaan Laaman recalled: “Lynne truly was fearless and could not be intimidated by prosecutors, judges or FBI and other gun-toting goons.”

With such a bio, Lynne found herself directly in the state’s crosshairs. In February 2005, she was convicted of material support to terrorism and conspiracy to defraud the U.S. government for her vigorous legal defense of Egyptian fundamentalist Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, who had been convicted for an alleged plot to blow up New York City landmarks in the early 1990s. The purported “material support” was communicating her client’s views to Reuters news service. The “fraud” was running afoul of Special Administrative Measures imposed by the Clinton administration that stripped prisoners of basic rights, including the ability to communicate with the outside world and the Sixth Amendment right to counsel. Her Arabic interpreter Mohamed Yousry and paralegal Ahmed Abdel Sattar were also convicted. As we wrote in “Outrage! Lynne Stewart, Mohamed Yousry, Ahmed Abdel Sattar Convicted” (WV No. 842, 18 February 2005):

“The verdict gives the government a green light to prosecute lawyers for the alleged crimes of their clients, thereby shooting the basic right to counsel to hell.... If nobody can get a lawyer to zealously defend him from prosecution, then fundamental liberties, from the right to a trial and an attorney, to even the right of free speech and assembly, are choked.”

The George W. Bush administration made Lynne Stewart’s prosecution a centerpiece of the bogus “war on terror,” having seized on the September 11 attacks to greatly enhance “anti-terror” measures enacted by Democratic president Bill Clinton. Indeed, she and her codefendants were convicted under Clinton’s 1996 Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act.

Judge John Koeltl, who praised Lynne for representing “the poor, the disadvantaged and the unpopular,” gave her a 28-month sentence, far less than what the prosecution demanded. Outraged by such “leniency,” the government went to extraordinary lengths to appeal. At the instigation of the Obama administration, a ruling by a three-judge panel of the Second Circuit Court of Appeals directed Koeltl to resentence her to ten years of hard time. On 15 July 2010, Koeltl complied.

We noted at the time that this was intended to be a death sentence for Lynne, who was suffering from Stage IV breast cancer. In prison she was taken to chemotherapy treatments in leg irons and handcuffs shackled to a chain around her waist; the weight of the chains was so heavy that guards had to essentially carry her from her cell to the prison hospital. In December 2010, she was transferred to the federal women’s prison in Carswell, Texas, far from family and supporters. Lynne was being brutally punished for nothing other than standing up to the U.S. government.

It was through the Spartacist League and Partisan Defense Committee’s work in publicizing and rallying to the defense of Lynne Stewart and her codefendants that we came to know and work with her and Ralph, who had differences with our Marxist views. The two of them later became regular honored guests at the PDC’s annual Holiday Appeal benefits for class-war prisoners. Not ones to shy away from a good argument, Lynne and Ralph were quite happy to tweak our noses at the Holiday Appeals and get theirs tweaked in return. With a shared commitment to the fight for solidarity with victims of capitalist state repression, our mutual respect grew as we engaged in political debate.

Lynne’s political principles included not throwing her codefendants under the bus for her own interests. At a Lynne Stewart Defense Committee meeting following her 2005 conviction, PDC supporters stressed the importance of fighting for freedom for her codefendants, Yousry and Abdel Sattar. Lynne applauded this statement. But the defense committee, run by the National Lawyers Guild, abandoned her codefendants.

Longtime “movement” lawyer Liz Fink, who quit the legal team days before Lynne Stewart’s resentencing, filed court papers that despicably tried to exonerate her client by framing up Yousry. Fink accused him of conversing in Arabic with the sheik to further the latter’s aims—a fabrication that the New York Times (7 March) repeated in its obituary for Lynne Stewart. Lynne rose up in court to disavow her attorney and announced that those were Fink’s words, not hers. In fact, Yousry had been writing a PhD thesis on radical Islam in Egypt under the guidance of Near East historian Zachary Lockman, who had advised him to interview the sheik. Yousry’s prosecution left his life in ruins.

In greetings read out by Ralph to a PDC Holiday Appeal in January 2011 in NYC, the imprisoned Lynne denounced the chilling effect of Justice Department witchhunting of political opponents, declaring: “That message once again must be shouted down, first by the resisters who will go to jail and second by us, the movement who must support them by always filling those cold marble courtrooms to show our solidarity and speaking out so that their sacrifice is constantly remembered.” In another letter, she conveyed the deep human solidarity that continued to drive her even under the inhumane conditions of incarceration. She wrote that with the monthly stipend she received as part of the PDC’s support to class-war prisoners, she was able to purchase books and, after finishing them, put them into “circulation” for other inmates. Lynne also used the stipend to help provide other imprisoned women with items like coffee, peanut butter and shampoo.

In 2013, as Lynne’s health precipitously declined, more than 40,000 people signed petitions demanding her release. At the request of her attorney, a medical doctor associated with the PDC meticulously documented how Lynne met all criteria for hospice eligibility by the government’s own guidelines. This played a role in procuring her release later that year when the Justice Department, after months of obstruction, finally allowed Koeltl to free her on the grounds of her “terminal medical condition and very limited life expectancy.” Arriving at LaGuardia airport on New Year’s Day 2014, Lynne, who could barely walk, told her supporters, “I’m going to work for women’s group prisoners and for political prisoners.” Being back with her family and back in the struggle literally added years to her life.

In honoring Lynne Stewart, we recognize a hard, effective champion of the oppressed. We salute her lifework, which is an inspiration to those fighting for social justice against the rulers of this racist capitalist society.