The New York lawyer who was convicted of material support for terrorism after carrying messages for her client, terrorist sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, is scheduled to be sentenced today to as much as 30 years in prison.
She and her allies are pinning their hopes for leniency on a strategy that argues she became so emotionally involved in the sheik's case that she acted irrationally ó a strategy that is underpinned by a sealed letter to the court from a psychiatrist.
A psychiatric report submitted to the federal judge in Manhattan who will decide the sentence, John Koeltl, claims that several emotional events in Stewart's life suggest her actions were motivated by "human factors of her client and his situation" and not by politics, according to portions of the psychiatric report.
The psychiatrist, Steven Teich, points to 11 emotional events that he claims prompted her to want to take action on Abdel Rahman's behalf, Stewart's attorneys say. Among the events that make Dr.Teich's list are her experiences seeing Abdel Rahman incarcerated and the 1995 suicide of a drug defendant named Dominick Maldonado, whom Stewart had once represented.
"Ms. Stewart's commitment to the protection of her client, the Sheik, in prison was magnified by emotions from her perceived failure to protect her former client Mr. Maldonado, which had, consequently, resulted in his death by suicide," Mr. Teich wrote.
While the evaluation by Dr. Teich is filed under seal, Stewart's attorneys quote portions of it at length in public legal papers.
Stewart's behavior was "emotionally based and sometimes impulsive" and her mental state while representing Abdel Rahman "immobilized her critical ability to evaluate the potential consequences of her actions," according to the psychiatric report.
Stewart has long maintained that she served as a messenger between Abdel Rahman and his followers because she wanted him to remain involved in Egyptian politics in preparation for the unlikely possibility that he would be transferred to Egypt and freed.
In a letter filed last month to Judge Koeltl, first reported in the New York Times, Stewart's apology is in line with the psychiatric evaluation.
"Finally, and this was fully revealed to me in my discussions post-trial with Dr. Teich, if I have a tragic flaw it is that I care too much for my clients," Stewart wrote."I am soft-hearted to the point of self-abnegation. When one reaches out to another human being, even a hated and despised defendant, the client is grateful, the lawyer is fulfilled and an emotional mutuality arises."
Judge Koeltl has wide leeway to sentence Stewart as he sees fit. Stewart's case file contains hundreds of letters from supporters ranging from state Senator Thomas Duane to an assistant attorney general from 1993 to 1995, Jo Ann Harris, who seek to sway Judge Koeltl towards leniency. Stewart's lawyers have asked Judge Koeltl to spare Stewart prison time. The government has requested a 30-year prison term. A term of that length would likely mean that Stewart, who is 67 and plagued by health problems, would die in prison.
Stewart was convicted in 2005 of providing material support for terrorism for passing on the messages Abdel Rahman gave her and her translator during visits with him in federal prison in Minnesota. Abdel Rahman, the spiritual leader of a terrorist group in Egypt, is serving a life term following his 1995 conviction in a conspiracy to blow up landmarks around New York. Following a conversation with Abdel Rahman in 2000, Stewart called a Reuters reporter in Cairo to say that Abdel Rahman had withdrawn his support from a ceasefire that his terrorist organization, the Islamic Group, was observing in Egypt.
Since being indicted four years ago, Stewart had defended her actions.
"I would do it againó it's the way a lawyer is supposed to behave." Stewart told reporters the day of her conviction, the Washington Post reported.
But Stewart has switched tacks as her sentencing approaches. Now she blames her decision to serve as Abdel Rahman's mouthpiece on the emotional attachment she feels for the 68 year-old, blind and ailing sheik.
Since the charges against Stewart were first announced in 2002, they have sparked a debate in op-ed pages and law reviews. Some argued that the case represented an erosion of the attorney-client privilege. Other attorneys said Stewart's behavior had crossed clearly over into the criminal.
Many of the letters filed with the court ask Judge Koeltl, who was appointed to the bench by President Clinton, to consider Stewart's career advocating on behalf of unpopular and sometimes un-paying defendants.
One letter stands out. In it, a former top Justice Department prosecutor, Jo Ann Harris, criticizes the federal prosecutors in Manhattan who brought the terrorism related charges against Ms. Stewart.
"Bad government judgment?" Ms. Harris, who served under President Clinton as the assistant attorney general in charge of the Department of Justice's criminal division, wrote in a letter dated June 1. "Clearly I believe it was not good judgment."
Ms. Harris asks Judge Koeltl to refrain from sentencing Stewart to a prison term that is "out of all proportion to the conduct proved."
Ms. Harris, now a defense attorney, was one of the Justice Department officials who reviewed the decision to prosecute Abdel Rahman.
The sentencing has been put off for a year until now, to allow Ms. Stewart time to be treated for breast cancer. The Web site managed by the Lynne Stewart Defense committee promises that today's court proceeding "will be one to tell your grandchildren about."
Stewart speaks regularly at political rallies across the city and beyond. Yesterday afternoon and well into the evening, dozens of speakers praised Stewart to a mostly graying audience of 500 at Riverside Church. Several members of the Granny Peace Brigade, a group of elderly women whose anti-war acts of civil disobedience have attracted international attention, sang a protest song in Stewart's honor.
Also scheduled for sentencing today are Stewart's former paralegal, Ahmed Abdel Sattar, and her translator, Mohammed Yousry. Sattar was convicted of plotting to kill people in a foreign country for writing a paper urging the murder of Jews.Yousry was convicted of material support for terrorism. The government has asked for prison terms of life for Sattar and 20 years for Yousry.