Cancer Spurs More Support For Release of Lynne Stewart

UntitledPaul O. Boisvert for The New York Times

Dick Gregory and Ed Asner have joined thousands of online petitioners in calling for the release of Lynne F. Stewart now that her family has announced that she is suffering from stage-4 breast cancer.

Ralph Poynter, the husband of the onetime Lower East side lawyer, said he learned that his wife has two to three years to live from a warden at the Carswell, Texas prison where she is serving a ten-year sentence for aiding terrorism.

Mr. Poynter said their daughter, Dr. Zenobia Brown, diagnosed her with Stage 4 breast cancer. He added that his wife, who is 73, has undergone chemotherapy at a Fort Worth hospital while “shackled” to a bed and that she has already written a letter to her warden requesting a compassionate release. He told The Local today that her application is being considered by prison authorities in Texas.

A spokesperson for the Bureau of Prisons declined to comment on Ms. Stewart’s medical condition, citing federal privacy laws for inmates.

The demand for Ms. Stewart’s release is the latest in a long series of conflicts between the courts and her ardent supporters.

She was convicted in 2005 on five counts of providing aid to terrorists and defrauding the U.S. government after an anonymous jury determined that she had passed along coded messages from her imprisoned Muslim client, Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, a fundamentalist Egyptian cleric known as the “blind sheik,” to his violent followers in the Islamic Group, an organization that has been designated as a terrorist network by the U.S. government. The sheik, who is serving a life sentence for a 1993 plot to blow up New York City landmarks, is one in a long list of unpopular clients that Ms. Stewart had represented over the years.

An online petition coordinated by Mr. Poynter and former WBAI host Ralph Schoenman and his co-producer wife Mya Shone demanding the compassionate release of Ms. Stewart has garnered over 9,600 signatures. Comedian Dick Gregory and actor Ed Asner voiced support for Ms. Stewart’s release, joining folk singer Pete Seeger, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu on the list of high-profile people and human rights activists advocating for Ms. Stewart.

UntitledRuth Fremson/The New York Times Supporters in 2010.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District, which prosecuted Ms. Stewart and two co-defendants, declined to comment on the petition.

Compassionate release, sometimes called medical parole, gives the courts the power to grant an inmate an early exit from prison for extraordinary reasons such as terminal illness. Mr. Poynter said that compassionate release is more common when inmates are “about a few feet from dying” rather than a few years from dying but noted he wants to challenge that policy.

Before a compassionate release is granted, the BOP must make a motion to the U.S. District judge to review a request for it. In 2012, the Bureau of Prisons approved 39 requests for review, according to a spokesperson for the department.

Mr. Gregory, who has long taken public stands on divisive social issues, said in a statement on his website that he began refusing solid foods on April 4, the anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination, to protest Ms. Stewart’s continued imprisonment and will continue to do so until she is “freed.” About a week later, he told The Local he was still drinking fruit and vegetable juices.

A central charge in the government’s case against Ms. Stewart asserted that she issued a press release to a Reuters reporter in Cairo, Egypt dictated by Mr. Abdel Rahman saying he had withdrawn his support for a ceasefire between the Islamic Group and the Egyptian government, which prosecutors said constituted a “call to arms” and also violated prison regulations that Ms. Stewart signed under oath vowing to restrict Mr. Abdel Rahman’s contact with the outside world to his family and his lawyers. Ms. Stewart pleaded not guilty in the case. The government presented no evidence of violent acts resulting from her press release.

Ms. Stewart’s judge in Federal District Court initially sentenced her to 28 months in prison, but after an appellate panel of judges sent the case back to him, he upped the sentence to 10 years, saying her public remarks suggested she lacked remorse for her actions and that she considered her penance “trivial.” (After her initial sentencing, she told supporters outside the courthouse: “I can do [28 months] standing on my head.”) She has been in prison since late 2009.

UntitledFred R. Conrad/The New York TimesOmar Abdel Rahman

In an interview, Herald Price Fahringer, one of Ms. Stewart’s attorneys filing a petition for certiorari for the U.S. Supreme Court to hear her case again, denounced the ten-year sentence. “To increase a person’s punishment based on what they say outside the courthouse is a deterrent to free speech,” he said.

In the right-wing blogosphere, Ms. Stewart is clearly a pariah who should remain in prison. “No, hell no,” wrote syndicated columnist Michelle Malkin in response to calls for Ms. Stewart’s release. “This messenger gal for murderous barbarians made her prison bed. Die in it,” she wrote online.

Attorney Ron Kuby, a friend of Ms. Stewart’s who briefly represented Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman with the late William Kunstler, declined to speculate on Ms. Stewart’s chances of being granted medical furlough but said he believes she deserves it. “The [original] sentence of 28 months was more than sufficient for the harm she did not do,” he said.

Ms. Stewart maintained a law office on Houston and Pitt Streets from 1993 to 1995 (more recently, her office was on lower Broadway). Her husband operated a motorcycle shop on Avenue B until 1975, when he moved it to the West Village where Ms. Stewart once practiced law in an office above it.