This former Park Slope lawyer beat the system and now she is confident she can beat cancer.
Lynne Stewart, 74, has breast cancer and was released from federal prison on Jan. 1 after serving four years of a 10-year sentence for communicating on behalf of her client, blind cleric Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman, who was convicted of plotting to blow up New York landmarks including the United Nations and Lincoln Tunnel. A federal judge signed off on her get-out-of-jail-free card at the recommendation of the justice department and the prisons bureau, saying that she is close to death — an August court filing by her lawyers said she has 18 months to live — but the newly-freed firebrand said she has big plans, diagnosis be damned.
“There are people in every city in this country who care about me, and I intend to contact them, speak out, and get people organized,” Stewart said. “My really important goal is to work on the plight of men and women who are in jail for truly political reasons, some of them for more than 40 years.”
Stewart spent her career defending poor, politically active, and often deeply unpopular clients and was disbarred in 2007 ahead of her indictment and conviction on charges of aiding terrorism. She is now on probation and living with her son Geoffrey on a tree-lined Flatbush street — a far cry from the Texas penitentiary where she did hard time.
“Prison is a place of terrible, arbitrary authority,” Stewart said. “You can very quickly become institutionalized.”
Stewart said she got in trouble with her captors a few times for helping fellow prisoners get their heads around their cases, but that she was otherwise left alone, she thinks because the same activists who were clamoring for her release would have cried foul at the slightest hint of abuse.
Her husband Ralph Poynter visited at least once a month and kept up the international campaign to bring her home to Brooklyn, which she says has changed a lot since she last saw it.
“I do not like some of the big, tall buildings that have sprung up in parts,” she said. “But it all looks so good to me, because when you are in jail, you are in a parallel world, and there is no other world other than the institution you are in.”
The boisterous former barrister maintains that she should never have been jailed for ferrying messages on behalf of her client, nicknamed “the blind sheikh,” in violation of special prison rules governing inmates accused or convicted of terror offenses, because she was just doing her job.
Also unchanged is her belief that the United States plays fast and loose with the law when it suits its purposes.
The killing of Osama bin Laden, which drew criticism from civil liberties organizations because the infamous terrorist was unarmed when shot, is an indication of how the government operates now, she said.
“They shoot first, ask questions later,” she said. “They moved on him the way they wanted to move.”
Stewart’s Park Slope pad has been taken over by her granddaughter and great-grandson, but they are planning to move out soon. The agitator is on doctor’s orders to stay in her son’s Flatbush home, but hopes move to return home once she has regained some of her health. Until then, she says she will continue to enjoy the little things — watching football, cooking collard greens, and spending time with family.
“It is just so wonderful, the difference between sad and forlorn, and happy and laughing,” Stewart said. “It is very ordinary and nice at the same time.”