Free Lynne Stewart: “The People’s Lawyer”

By Jennifer Waller


On a rainy November night, almost 300 people gathered outside the court at 500 Pearl Street and waited for Lynne Stewart, fondly known as “the people’s lawyer,” to arrive. The crowd was a mix of journalists, public defenders, teachers, artists, city council members and all kinds of political activists—people specializing in housing rights and anti-displacement, anti-racism, economic justice, workers’ rights, anti-imperialism, and the list goes on. When it comes to poor and working people and their allies, Lynne is well-loved as a brave and reliable lawyer and friend; many share stories of knocking at her door in the middle of the night with urgent matters, knowing they could trust her to help and stand by them.

On that particular night in November, however, Lynne’s friends and allies were gathered to support her in her time of need. It was Thursday Nov. 19, the day that Judge John G. Koeltl ordered Lynne to turn herself in and begin serving a prison sentence for Conspiracy and Aiding and Abetting Terrorism, of which she was convicted in 2005. Lynne was originally arrested on April 9, 2002 in the midst of 9/11 “homeland security” hysteria under the Patriot Act. Her so-called “crime,” was committed back in 2000.

Lynne was representing Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman, also known as the “Blind Sheikh.” She, along with Ramsey Clark and Abdeen Jabara, represented him in court in 1995. The Sheikh was convicted in September of 1995 and sentenced to life in prison. Lynne and the other lawyers continued to visit him in prison, as more and more restrictions were placed on him. Eventually he was barely even allowed to communicate with his family, and his lawyers were his main contact with the outside world.

Lynne visited Abdel-Rahman in 2000 and agreed to his request that she make a press release for him. Contrary to reports in the corporate media, Lynne was never involved in transferring any secret information or conspiring in any sort of “terrorist plot.”

The government saw no need to prosecute Lynne, who was only performing her duties toward her client, until after 9/11.  Lynne was indicted, along with her paralegal and interpreter for the case. In April of 2002, John Ashcroft came to New York and announced the indictment as part of greater scheme to puff up the appearance of Bush’s Justice Department and its efforts to fight terrorism. The case was then tried in 2005, and all three were convicted.  Lynne was allowed to remain at liberty while she fought her conviction through an appeal.  However, in November, an appellate court issued a decision upholding Lynne’s conviction and revoking her bail.

This past November, at 500 Pearl Street, Lynne’s supporters waited for her restlessly, until the crowd began to notice a circle of people and flashing cameras slowly moving toward them from across the street. People started to wave their signs in the air, yelling “Free Lynne Stewart!” and “We love you Lynne!” As the circle of people neared the courthouse, Lynne could just barely be seen in the middle of it all, smiling and appearing calm through all the mayhem. At seventy years old, Lynne is still energetic and optimistic about life, even after everything she has seen during her long time in the struggle.

Lynne and the mob surrounding her stopped in front of the courthouse and she turned around to face the crowd of supporters. “Okay, we’re going to prison, folks!” she called, “I want to remind you all that today was the day that Joe Hill was executed. And you know what he said? Don’t mourn me, organize!” Joe Hill was a union organizer and activist who was unjustly executed in 1915. Lynne’s mention of him and his moving words spurred cheers and shouts from the crowd and brought more than one person to tears.

Though many see Lynne’s incarceration as a defeat, she will surely still be a powerful political force even behind bars. Her struggle for justice has inspired many, even after she was disbarred immediately after her conviction. Many believe her case is intended to send a message to other lawyers like her who take on clients that are seen as a threat to the U.S. government.

Michael Tigar, one of Lynne’s attorneys, spoke to this in relation to the upcoming Guantanamo Bay detainees’ trials in New York when he was interviewed in 2005 about Lynne’s case on the “Democracy Now!” program. He said, “this case really is a threat to all the lawyers who are out there attempting to represent people that face these terrible consequences…The only way that we will ever get to the bottom of the American concentration camp abuses at Gitmo and Abu Ghraib is that if the lawyers for these prisoners are permitted to tell their stories to the world. If the government can shut off that communication, which they have attempted to do over and over and over again, these activities will continue in secret.”

In many ways Lynne Stewart is a very unlikely political prisoner. She is a seventy year old grandmother and has experienced many health problems in recent years. She is a recovering breast cancer survivor, has very high blood pressure, and at the time of her conviction, was scheduled to undergo a surgery for bladder problems. Now her allies fear that she will be forced to undergo this operation in the prison hospital and are putting a big effort behind ensuring she has her surgery at a metropolitan New York hospital. The biggest long-term issue is the possibility that her current 28-month sentence could be extended.

In the meantime, Lynne reported in a letter from prison that she is being treated very well, and that her fellow prisoners treat her with a great amount of respect, as many of them know of her work. She also speaks to how “deplorable” conditions are in Manhattan Correctional Center, where she is being held. She ends her open letter this way: “Organize – Agitate, Agitate, Agitate! And write to me and others locked down by the Evil Empire.”

Here’s where to mail letters to Lynne:

Lynne Stewart



150 Park Row

New York, NY 10007


1 Comment

  1. Very informative article with lots of useful info – thxs. Keep up the good work.

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