PersecutingProsecuting the Defenders

In its continuing war against prominent women named “Stewart”, criminal defense attorney Lynne Stewart was sentenced to28 months in prison in federal court in Manhattan yesterday. The Bush Administration was still hoping for the 9-11 mojo and a 30-year (or life) sentence for the 67 year old breast-cancer surviving Stewart, former counsel to poor schmuck criminals as well as those with a political angle to their crimes, most notably, ’93 WTC bombing mastermind Sheik Abdul Rahman (“the blind cleric”), for whom Stewart was convicted of smuggling messages.
Judge John Koeltl wasn’t drinking the Bushmen’s kool-aid, and found that while Stewart had undeniably violated prison rules (and “the law”, whatever that is here, or at least flouted it… rules designed to prevent a terrorist from communicating with outside members of his cell could– and arguably were– also used to prevent defense counsel from interviewing potentially helpful witnesses… hence, the issue), her long career of representing those with nowhere else to turn, and over 1,100 letters of support swayed him to impose a real, but not insanely harsh, sentence on Ms. Stewart. Her co-defendants didn’t do as well; a paralegal got 24 years and her translator got 28 months as well, for their role in communicating Rahman’s wishes to the outside world.
As a lawyer with an interest on this blog in the work of other lawyers who defend comparably unpopular clients, I was most interested to see how this would play out… Certainly, the life sentence sought by the government was calculated to deter attorneys from representing the unpopular; perhaps Judge Koeltl was aware of that as well.
No matter. Ms. Stewart’s legal career is over. Given that she knowingly chose to flout arguably unfair (or even unconstitutional) rules supposedly put in place for national security reasons, rather than apply to court for leave to disregard them, she took her chances by violating those rules. But she did not hurt anyone, nor did she intend to hurt anyone, and the government’s position here appeared quite literally intended to chill defense counsel from doing their job. As such… it appears that some semblance of fairness permeated this result.
Ms. Stewart’s conducted resulted in her violating one of the most important adages of the legal profession: at the end of the day, if someone has to go to jail, it’s the client.
An appeal will follow, but my guess is the sentence and conviction will stand.