NEW YORK -- Radical lawyer Lynne Stewart was sentenced yesterday to 28 months in prison for helping a terrorist client communicate with his followers, a far less severe sentence than the 30 years sought by federal prosecutors.
As US District Judge John Koeltl delivered his sentence in a packed federal courtroom in Manhattan, Stewart lifted her glasses and dabbed at tears as her husband hugged his daughter tightly. An hour later the 67-year-old lawyer emerged from the federal courthouse holding hands with her granddaughter and grandson and, to loud cheers and applause from hundreds of supporters, declared a victory of sorts over the Bush administration.
``The judge did a fair and right thing," she told a crowd of reporters and television cameras, even as a supporter placed a bouquet of roses in her arms. ``This is a great victory against an overreaching government."
And of her sentence, she sounded almost jaunty: ``As my clients say to me, `I could do that standing on my head.' "
In fact, Koeltl made it clear that Stewart had committed a serious offense by smuggling messages between her client, Sheik Omar-Abdel Rahman, and his followers in the Middle East, including a statement withdrawing the sheik's support for a cease-fire with the Egyptian government. Stewart's actions, Koeltl said, constituted ``extraordinarily severe criminal conduct" and material support for terrorism and could have had ``lethal consequences."
Koeltl noted, however, that neither Stewart's actions nor those of her codefendants, translator Mohammed Yousry and legal assistant Ahmed Sattar, resulted in violence in the United States or overseas. Having lashed out at Stewart for her criminal conduct, the judge executed a pivot, commending her for leading an otherwise exemplary life as a legal advocate for the poor, despised, and dispossessed.
``Ms. Stewart performed a public service, not only to her clients but to the nation," Koeltl said. ``She's made an extraordinary contribution."
Taken as a whole, the judge argued, her accomplishments amounted to a strong argument for departing from nonbinding federal guidelines that otherwise might lead him to impose a 30-year sentence.
Koeltl's decision to mete out a comparatively mild sentence amounted to a slap at federal prosecutors in a case that John Ashcroft, former attorney general, repeatedly had hailed as a nationwide model. US Attorney Michael Garcia released a statement expressing disappointment and held out the possibility of appealing the sentence. It is not unusual for a federal appeals court to reverse a sentence handed out by the lower court.
But more than a few legal observers divined a message in the judge's sentences.
``There's no doubt the government has tried to use this case to chill effective advocacy in terror cases," said Neal Sonnett, a former federal prosecutor and past chair of the ABA's Criminal Justice Section and current chair of the task Force on treatment of enemy combatants. ``I'm delighted the judge was not swayed by the frenzy over terrorism."
More conservative legal commentators, including Andrew McCarthy -- who prosecuted Rahman -- had urged the court to impose a stiff sentence on Stewart. When Sheik Rahman was convicted in 1995 for plotting to blow up New York landmarks, prosecutors and prison officials imposed stringent restrictions on his contact with the outside world. By smuggling out the Sheik's messages, they said, Stewart strayed far across the invisible boundary between zealous advocacy and criminal conspiracy.