NEW YORK – A once-prominent New York civil rights lawyer convicted of helping a terrorist client communicate with his followers is still battling the cancer that earned her compassionate release from prison over two years ago — and she is still as radical as ever, even expressing support for the killers of police officers.
Lynne Stewart, a 76-year-old great-grandmother, said in an interview with The Associated Press at her Brooklyn home that she is increasingly drained of energy by a disease that was projected to kill her at least six months ago.
“I still have serious, serious cancer,” a slow-moving Stewart said, sitting alongside her equally outspoken husband, Ralph Poynter. “I have good days and bad days. I know I’m sick. I’m not what I was once.”
At the height of her legal career, the former schoolteacher represented clients who included Weather Underground radicals, cop killers and small-time criminals.
Now, she knows people are curious to find her alive, still supporting extremists whenever she can after being relieved of a sentence that once called for her incarceration until 2018.
“What is she doing? She’s still alive? You’re supposed to be dead!” she says, describing what some must think.
She was disbarred after a Manhattan jury convicted her of breaking strict rules meant to ensure a blind Egyptian sheik serving a life prison sentence in a plot to blow up New York City landmarks and kill Egypt’s president never communicated with the outside world. Sentenced to a decade in prison, she was freed on New Year’s Eve in 2013, after doctors concluded she had less than 18 months to live.
But the cancer has neither killed nor muzzled Stewart, a longtime believer in armed struggle as a way of fostering political revolution.
Asked about the recent ambush slayings of police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge, Stewart said of the gunmen, “They spoke for some of us when they did that.”
“They are avengers,” she said. “They are not brazen, crazed, you know, insane killers. They are avenging deaths that are never and have never been avenged since the ’60s and ’70s.”
Stewart said she believed that the murders had, at least briefly, acted as “a deterrent” against the killings of unarmed civilians by police.
Stewart said violence sometimes leads to societal change, allowing “the more peaceable shepherds among us to approach the wolf.” She said given the chance, she would tell the families of officers who are killed that “they enlisted in an army that maybe they never realized was put out there to ‘keep the peace’ for those who are very interested in maintaining things the way they are.”
Annemarie McAvoy, a former federal prosecutor, called Stewart’s remarks “really unbelievable.”
“It’s sad,” said McAvoy, who teaches about terrorist financing and money laundering at Columbia University. “She had such a lapse of judgment in helping known terrorists communicate with each other, which is why she was sent to jail. Obviously jail did not rehabilitate her thought process.”
McAvoy, who worked with a unit focused on police integrity while employed recently by the Brooklyn district attorney’s office, said most law enforcement officers are really good people.
“Maybe some don’t always follow the rules but there are remedies to deal with that and the remedy is not to go out and shoot some cop randomly,” McAvoy said.
Portraying herself as a political prisoner while incarcerated, Stewart said the government and her sentencing judge, John G. Koeltl, did the right thing by letting her go free, though she adds: “I’m sure the government doesn’t like that I do champion these guys.”
Dr. Brie Williams, an associate professor of medicine at the University of California at San Francisco who researches correctional health care, said a life prognosis is an inexact science.
“In a serious illness, we mean there is a 50-50 chance the person will die within the time frame,” she said.
A hero to her fans and an annoying cockroach to her critics, Stewart still speaks when she can, including in California during a trip last summer.
“Going away to jail gave me a certain cache I didn’t have otherwise. And I can build on that,” she said.
She said invitations to speak are dwindling, while her energy slows.
“I do know I’m not asked to speak as often because I’m very outspoken,” she said, “certainly about political prisoners, certainly about people who are in jail for the death of police officers.”