NY court: Consider harsher sentence in terror case

AP News
Posted: Dec 23, 2009 8:35 PM

A federal appeals court on Wednesday took a sterner stance toward the upcoming resentencing of a former civil rights lawyer convicted in a terrorism case, saying it has "serious doubts" whether her sentence of just over two years in prison was reasonable.

The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals added new instructions for the judge who will resentence 70-year-old Lynne Stewart, who was convicted of letting an imprisoned Egyptian terrorist client communicate with followers. The court said the judge should consider whether Stewart's sentence should be increased because of the case's terrorism connections.

"We have serious doubts that the sentence given was reasonable but think it appropriate to hear from the district court further before deciding the issue," the appeals court said.

Stewart was locked up last month at the direction of the 2nd Circuit, which instructed Judge John G. Koeltl to resentence her after considering whether she committed perjury when she testified at her 2005 trial or otherwise obstructed justice.

She was convicted of charges that she let blind Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman communicate with a man who relayed messages to senior members of an Egyptian-based terrorist organization. She was sentenced in 2006 but was permitted to remain free until the appeals court ruled.

Abdel-Rahman is serving a life sentence for conspiracies to blow up New York City landmarks and assassinate Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

Last month, the appeals court did not recommend that Koeltl reconsider whether to impose a terrorism enhancement that could increase Stewart's sentence to 30 years in prison. But on Wednesday, the appeals court said the judge must take the terrorism enhancement into account even if he decides to issue a lenient sentence at the April 22 resentencing.

The appeals court said the judge might have erred if he decided the terrorism enhancement should not be applied based on his view of Stewart's personal characteristics.

The appeals court had noted that Koeltl said he viewed Stewart's personal characteristics as "extraordinary" and had described her as a dedicated public servant who had "represented the poor, the disadvantaged and the unpopular, often as a court-appointed attorney," thus providing a "service not only to her clients but to the nation."

The 2nd Circuit said the judge at sentencing must consider whether support of terrorism calls for a harsher sentence because of the circumstances of the crime and the need for the sentence to reflect the seriousness of the crime.

A lawyer for Stewart did not immediately return a telephone call seeking comment Wednesday. Prosecutors declined to comment.

At trial, prosecutors had asked the judge to impose a 30-year term for what they described in court papers as Stewart's "extremely dangerous and devious" conduct.

Stewart responded by writing the judge a nine-page letter seeking leniency. Mixed with her trademark defiance _ "I am not a traitor" _ was a measure of contrition.

After some soul searching, she wrote, she had concluded that a careless over-devotion to her clients _ "I am softhearted to the point of self-abnegation" _ was her undoing.