Lawyer Found Guilty of Aiding Terrorists
Lynne F. Stewart, an outspoken lawyer known for representing a long list of unpopular defendants, was convicted yesterday by a federal jury in Manhattan of aiding Islamic terrorism by smuggling messages out of jail from a terrorist client. In a startlingly sweeping verdict, Ms. Stewart was convicted on all five counts of providing material aid to terrorism and of lying to the government when she pledged to obey federal rules that barred her client, Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, from communicating with his followers. Her co-defendants, Ahmed Abdel Sattar and Mohamed Yousry, were also convicted of all the charges against them.
Afterward, Ms. Stewart said she was stunned and vowed to appeal the verdict. She called the trial a government assault on the practice of law. “I see myself as being a symbol of what people rail against when they say our civil liberties are eroded,” she said to a small cluster of her supporters outside the federal district courthouse. “I hope this will be a wake-up call to all the citizens of this country, that you can’t lock up the lawyers, you can’t tell the lawyers how to do their jobs.”
Ms. Stewart was convicted on two counts of conspiring to provide material aid to terrorists, by making the views and instructions of Mr. Abdel Rahman available to his followers in the Islamic Group, an organization in Egypt with a history of terrorist violence. She was also convicted of three counts of perjury and defrauding the government for flouting federal prison rules that barred Mr. Abdel Rahman, a blind Islamic cleric, from communicating with anyone outside his federal prison in Minnesota except his lawyers and his wife.
A veteran civil rights lawyer was convicted Thursday of crossing the line by smuggling messages of violence from one of her jailed clients Ã¢€” a radical Egyptian sheik Ã¢€” to his terrorist disciples on the outside. […] The trial focused attention on the line between zealous advocacy and criminal behavior by a lawyer. Some defense lawyers saw the case as a government warning to attorneys to tread carefully in terrorism cases. The jury also convicted a U.S. postal worker, Ahmed Abdel Sattar, of plotting to “kill and kidnap persons in a foreign country” by publishing an edict urging the killing of Jews and their supporters. A third defendant, Arabic interpreter Mohamed Yousry, was convicted of providing material support to terrorists. Sattar could face life in prison and Yousry up to 20 years.
Stewart was the lawyer for Omar Abdel-Rahman, a blind sheik sentenced to life in prison in 1996 for conspiring to assassinate Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and destroy several New York landmarks, including the U.N. building and the Lincoln and Holland Tunnels. Stewart’s co-defendants also had close ties to Abdel-Rahman. Prosecutors said Stewart and the others carried messages between the sheik and senior members of a Egyptian-based terrorist organization, helping spread Abdel-Rahman’s venomous call to kill those who did not subscribe to his extremist interpretation of Islamic law. At the time, the sheik was in solitary confinement in Minnesota under special prison rules to keep him from communicating with anyone except his wife and his lawyers. Prosecutor Andrew Dember argued that Stewart and her co-defendants essentially “broke Abdel-Rahman out of jail, made him available to the worst kind of criminal we find in this world Ã¢€” terrorists.”
Stewart, who once represented Weather Underground radicals and mob turncoat Sammy “The Bull” Gravano, repeatedly declared her innocence, maintaining she was unfairly targeted by overzealous prosecutors. But she also testified that she believed violence was sometimes necessary to achieve justice: “To rid ourselves of the entrenched, voracious type of capitalism that is in this country that perpetuates sexism and racism, I don’t think that can come nonviolently.”
A major part of the prosecution’s case was Stewart’s 2000 release of a statement withdrawing the sheik’s support for a cease-fire in Egypt by his militant followers. Prosecutors, though, could point to no violence that resulted from the statement. Videotape of prison conversations between Stewart and the sheik also were played for jurors Ã¢€” recordings the defense denounced as an intrusion into attorney-client privilege.
While protecting attorney-client privilege is an important principle of American law, it has never been the case that assisting one’s client carry out his criminal enterprise is part of that privilege. Further, since the videotape was used against Stewart, rather than her client, the attorney-client privilege argument is patently silly.
I’m actually more disturbed by this, from the NYT story:
Although Judge Koeltl reminded the jurors repeatedly that Osama bin Laden and the World Trade Center attacks were not at issue, images of the Qaeda leader and remembrances of the destruction he wrought pervaded the trial, which took place in a courthouse a few blocks from ground zero.
I’m well aware that the practice of emotionalizing cases is a widespread prosecution tactic. Clearly, though, the point of this was to sensationalize the crime. Prosecutors ought not be allowed to use such displays beyond establishing the facts of the case. The suggestion, often part of the closing arguments for the prosecution, that a jury must convict the defendant on the so as to “send a message” about the evils of terrorism/drugs/whatever is outrageous; that’s not what the trial is about. These things are perfectly reasonable for the sentencing phase, as that’s about establishing context. They have no place in the fact-finding phase.
Update (1214): Lawyers Take Uneasy Look at the Future (NYT rss)
Lawyers who take politically unpopular cases said yesterday that the conviction of Lynne F. Stewart was a warning that they could be prosecuted, too, though some insisted that they would not bow to what they called the intimidating message of the verdict. “I don’t think that there’s a political lawyer in this country who doesn’t believe that the government has a plan to target the lawyers who do what we do and to silence us,” said Stanley L. Cohen, one of the country’s best-known defenders of militants, terror suspects and other unpopular clients. “If anything,” Mr. Cohen said of Ms. Stewart’s conviction, “it will make us more determined.”
But defense lawyers who usually steer clear of such cases said the evidence at Ms. Stewart’s trial had left them believing that her conviction might not have as much effect on their work as they once feared. When the charges were announced, many defense lawyers objected that government prosecutors had gathered evidence by invading the privileged setting of attorney-client meetings. Yesterday, though, some lawyers said the evidence indicated that perhaps Ms. Stewart had stepped over a line – that the evidence showed that she seemed to revel in breaking prison rules she had agreed to accept and had passed messages for her client.
Ronald P. Fischetti, a New York defense lawyer, said yesterday that at first, he had been alarmed by what he saw as the prosecution’s overreaching when it appeared that it had eavesdropped on Ms. Stewart’s prison meeting with the client at the center of the case, Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, a blind Islamic cleric. But after following the trial, Mr. Fischetti said, he came to believe that “in my mind, she went beyond the bounds of advocacy.”
Ya think? There’s no evidence of which I’m aware that the government is systematically going after lawyers who defend objectionable clients. Stewart’s crossed a rather obvious bright line into the worst kind of criminal conspiracy.
The Power Line quotes Peter Margulies, a law professor at Roger Williams University: “I think lawyers need to be advocates, but they don’t need to be accomplices.” Indeed.