A federal appeals court on Tuesday upheld the conviction of a disbarred civil rights lawyer and ordered her to begin serving her sentence while a judge reconsiders whether he was too lenient in giving her more than two years in prison for passing information between suspected terrorists.
Lynne Stewart, 70, has been free on appeal since she was sentenced in 2006. The three-judge panel of the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals issued its nearly 200-page ruling almost two years after hearing arguments in the case.
"I will still go on fighting," Stewart pledged at a news conference across the street from the federal courthouse where she was convicted in February 2005 of conspiracy, providing material support to terrorists, defrauding the government and making false statements.
"This is a case that is bigger than me personally," she said. "I am no criminal and will fight it for all the lawyers."
She said the timing of the ruling might please the government because it could serve as a warning to lawyers seeking to zealously represent terrorism suspects at Guantanamo Bay who are being transferred to face trials in the United States.
Stewart, surrounded by several dozen supporters and signs that read "Free Lynne Stewart, the people's lawyer," learned after the news conference that she could remain free at least another day until she is informed where and when she must report to prison.
Stewart was sentenced to two years and four months in prison after she was convicted of passing messages between her client, Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman, and senior members of an Egyptian-based terrorist organization. Abdel-Rahman is serving a life sentence after he was convicted 14 years ago in conspiracies to blow up New York City landmarks and assassinate Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
The appeals court suggested that Stewart's sentence was too lenient, especially when compared with the 20-month prison term given to her co-defendant, Mohammed Yousry, a translator who was working for her.
The appeals court said the sentencing judge can also reconsider the sentences of Yousry and Ahmed Abdel Sattar, a former postal worker, depending on what the judge decides with Stewart. The court also ordered Yousry to begin serving his sentence. Sattar is already serving his 24-year sentence.
In its ruling, the appeals court said Stewart can be resentenced because Judge John G. Koeltl declined to determine at sentencing whether Stewart committed perjury when she testified at her trial.
The appeals court said it was necessary for the judge to make the determination because of "the seriousness of her criminal conduct, her responsibilities as a member of the bar and her role as counsel for Abdel-Rahman."
It added: "We think that whether Stewart lied under oath at her trial is directly relevant to whether her sentence was appropriate. ... Any cover-up or attempt to evade responsibility by a failure to tell the truth upon oath or affirmation at her trial would compound the gravity of her crime."
In a partial dissent to the ruling, Judge John Walker complained that the appeals court did not go far enough, saying it should have rejected Stewart's sentence as "substantively unreasonable" and required resentencing on that basis.
Another judge, Guido Calabresi, said in his own concurring opinion that he believed two other lawyers for Abdel-Rahman might have violated their agreements not to help their client communicate with the outside world.
The judge noted that one lawyer read newspaper articles and letters from followers to Abdel Rahman while another acknowledged issuing a statement to the media on behalf of Abdel-Rahman.
He said he did not believe prosecutors acted improperly by choosing not to prosecute others but he thought it was "another, perhaps uncomfortable, issue" deserving discussion.
In a footnote to its ruling, the appeals court noted that, after sentencing, Stewart was quoted as saying that two years in jail was nothing to look forward to, but, she could "do that standing on my head."
The appeals court said: "Whether Stewart made this statement in full, in part, or not at all, is obviously entirely irrelevant to any of the issues before us."
At her news conference, Stewart said the comment was taken out of context and praised the sentencing judge for his "courage" when prosecutors were seeking a 30-year sentence.
She said she still gets teary when she recalls how Koeltl cited her at sentencing for service to her clients and her country.