NEW YORK – A veteran civil rights lawyer known for representing radicals and revolutionaries in her 30 years on the New York legal scene has vowed to fight her conviction for smuggling messages of violence from one of her jailed clients to his terrorist disciples.
Lynne Stewart (search), 65, a firebrand, left-wing activist, was convicted Thursday of conspiracy, providing material support to terrorists, defrauding the government and making false statements.
"It's a dark day for civil liberties and for civil liberties lawyers in this country," attorney Ron Kuby (search) said Thursday. "In the post 9-11 era, where dissidents are treated as traitors, it's perhaps no surprise that a zealous civil rights lawyer becomes a convict."
Kuby, who briefly represented Omar Abdel-Rahman (search) after the radical Egyptian sheik's 1993 arrest, said the verdict was a "terrible message to send at a time when we need civil rights lawyers more than ever."
A tearful Stewart insisted she did nothing wrong after taking over Abdel-Rahman's case and representing him until her arrest in 2002. The blind cleric was convicted in 1995 of plotting to blow up New York landmarks and assassinate Egypt's president.
"I hope this is a wake up call to all the citizens of this country," she said outside court. "You can't lock up the lawyers."
Lawyers have said Stewart most likely would face a 20-year sentence. She will remain free on bail but must stay in New York until her July 15 sentencing.
Vowing to appeal, Stewart blamed the verdict on inflammatory evidence that included videotape of Usama bin Laden (search) urging support for the jailed Abdel-Rahman, who prosecutors said communicated with the outside world with Stewart's help.
"When you put Usama bin Laden in a courtroom and ask the jury to ignore it, you're asking a lot," she said.
Other lawyers viewed the verdict as reasonable.
"I think lawyers need to be advocates but they don't need to be accomplices," said Peter Margulies, a law professor at Roger Williams University (search) in Rhode Island who has studied terrorism cases. "I think the evidence suggested that Lynne Stewart had crossed the line."
The trial focused 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 purpose of this prosecution ... was to send a message to lawyers who represent alleged terrorists that it's dangerous to do so," said Michael Ratner, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, who was not involved in the case.
The jury heard two vastly different portraits of Stewart. Prosecutors described her as an essential and willing aide to terrorists, while defense attorney Michael Tigar focused on a lengthy legal career of representing the destitute and the despised.
The trial before U.S. District Judge John G. Koeltl began in late June, with prosecutor Christopher Morvillo telling the jury in his opening statement that Stewart "used her status as a lawyer as a cloak to smuggle messages into and out of prison." He said she allowed Abdel-Rahman, the blind sheik, to "incite terrorism."
Prosecutors said Stewart broke a promise to the government by letting outsiders communicate with the sheik, who was in solitary confinement under special prison rules designed to stop him from communicating with anyone except his wife and his lawyers.
Tigar suggested the case was an intrusion into attorney-client privilege as the government eavesdropped on prison conversations between Stewart and the sheik.
The anonymous jury, which deliberated 13 days over the past month before convicting Stewart, also convicted a U.S. postal worker, Ahmed Abdel Sattar, of conspiracy for 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 about 20 years.