The civil rights attorney Lynne Stewart has returned home from prison after a federal judge ordered her compassionate release. Stewart is 74 years old and dying from late-stage breast cancer. Viewed by supporters as a political prisoner, she had served almost four years of a 10-year sentence for distributing press releases on behalf of her client, Omar Abdel-Rahman, an Egyptian cleric known as the “blind Sheikh.” Stewart arrived to a group of cheering supporters in New York City on Wednesday. Democracy Now!'s Amy Goodman and Renée Feltz were at the airport to cover the homecoming and speak with Stewart about her time behind bars and her plans to continue fighting for political prisoners — and for her own life — now that she's free.
AMY GOODMAN: I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González, with a national broadcast exclusive.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yes, we turn now to longtime civil rights lawyer Lynne Stewart’s release from prison after serving almost four years of a 10-year sentence. Stewart is 74 years old and dying from late-stage breast cancer. Federal Judge John Koeltl granted her compassionate release on New Year’s Eve, and she returned home to New York on New Year’s Day. Koeltl wrote that Stewart’s “terminal medical condition and very limited life expectancy constitute extraordinary and compelling reasons that warrant the requested reduction [of her sentence].”
AMY GOODMAN: Viewed by many as a political prisoner, Lynne Stewart was jailed for distributing press releases on behalf of her client, Omar Abdel-Rahman, an Egyptian cleric known as the “blind Sheikh,” who was convicted of conspiring to blow up the U.N. and other landmarks in New York City. We’ll talk more about her case with her lawyer, Bob Boyle, but first, Democracy Now! was at the airport on Wednesday when Lynne Stewart arrived in New York, where she was met by her family and friends. She flew back with her husband, Ralph Poynter, who welcomed her the day before in Fort Worth, Texas, after she was released from the Fort Carswell Prison Medical Center.
ELLEN KIRSHBAUM: Yay! Victory! Amazing Grace!
AMY GOODMAN: We’re standing at the American Airlines arrival gate here at LaGuardia Airport. I’m Amy Goodman, with Democracy Now!’s Renée Feltz. Lynne Stewart has just landed, she and her husband, Ralph Poynter, flying in from Dallas-Fort Worth. She has been freed after four years in prison. The crowd is only growing, and security here is warning people to step aside, to get out of the exit spaces.
SECURITY GUARD: You cannot block this area. You must stand on this side here, or you must go downstairs.
AMY GOODMAN: Her family is here, her daughter, grandchildren, with flowers. We’ll talk to some of them right now.
Tell me your name, how old you are. What are you doing at LaGuardia Airport on New Year’s Day?
LEOLA BROWN: I’m coming to see my grandma.
AMY GOODMAN: What’s your name?
LEOLA BROWN: Leola Brown.
AMY GOODMAN: And how old are you?
LEOLA BROWN: Nine and three-quarters.
AMY GOODMAN: Who is your grandma?
LEOLA BROWN: Lynne Stewart.
AMY GOODMAN: And what do you have in your hands?
LEOLA BROWN: What?
AMY GOODMAN: What do you have in your hand?
LEOLA BROWN: Flowers.
AMY GOODMAN: Who are you going to do with them?
LEOLA BROWN: Give them to her.
AMY GOODMAN: Did you expect this was going to be happening?
LEOLA BROWN: Yeah—no.
AMY GOODMAN: Did it surprise you?
LEOLA BROWN: Yeah.
RENÉE FELTZ: And who else do we have here today? You guys want to introduce yourselves?
DANTE: My name is Dante, and I’m here because my grandma just came out of jail.
RENÉE FELTZ: How do you feel?
RENÉE FELTZ: Are you excited?
ELLEN KIRSHBAUM: My name is Ellen Kirshbaum. I’m a friend. I started at the BAI program. And four years ago, we started sending cards to Lynne because Lynne was part of our cohort. She was actually a board member. She was elected by the people. And so, she was part of these committees that we were on. Mimi was there. Serene was there. And so, we’ve been sending cards. Whenever we get together, we fill up the cards and send them to her, so she’s always in the room with us.
RENÉE FELTZ: I see you’ve brought some of those cards today?
ELLEN KIRSHBAUM: No, I brought the last one. This is the final one in the arc, and this is the “we welcome you home, we love you” card.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you tell me your name and your feelings right now?
DR. ZENOBIA BROWN: I’m Zenobia Brown, and I am walking on clouds and air. We are so excited—one, for humanity, that the right thing has finally been done, and of course for our selfish selves, that we’re going to have our dear, dear mother and grandmother and friend and comrade back, you know, from really the clutches of death. So we’re just so happy.
AMY GOODMAN: We recently had you on Democracy Now! You’re a doctor. You were talking about how you were hoping you could help Lynne when she came home, but did you expect it would be today, New Year’s Day?
DR. ZENOBIA BROWN: I didn’t expect it to be today, but I knew it would be some day, absolutely. Absolutely knew it had to happen.
AMY GOODMAN: How are you preparing for her homecoming, as she is very ill?
DR. ZENOBIA BROWN: Well, as a family, we’re pulling together to make sure she has everything to be comfortable at home, but also arranging for her to be seen at Kettering as soon as possible so she can continue with her chemotherapy.
AMY GOODMAN: And who’s this?
DR. ZENOBIA BROWN: This is her granddaughter.
SARAFINA BROWN: I’m Sarafina Brown.
AMY GOODMAN: And how old are you?
SARAFINA BROWN: Thirteen.
AMY GOODMAN: And what are you holding?
SARAFINA BROWN: Flowers.
AMY GOODMAN: For?
SARAFINA BROWN: For my grandma.
AMY GOODMAN: Did you expect this day would come?
SARAFINA BROWN: I was hoping it would come soon, and it’s a surprise that it happened today.
UNIDENTIFIED: There she is! I see her! I see her face!
AMY GOODMAN: Here comes Lynne Stewart. She is getting out of her wheelchair.
CROWD: We love Lynne! We love Lynne!
AMY GOODMAN: Lynne, how do you feel?
LYNNE STEWART: Beyond joy. Beyond joy.
AMY GOODMAN: Lynne, did you think this day would come?
LYNNE STEWART: Well, somehow or other, yes, but not as wonderful as it has come—
AMY GOODMAN: And how are you—
LYNNE STEWART: —or as suddenly. It’s like bursting on me, you know? I mean, yesterday at this time, I was deep in the dungeons, and here I am in my beloved New York. It’s just wonderful. I can’t tell you. Oh, give me those flowers.
AMY GOODMAN: Ralph, how are you feeling today?
RALPH POYNTER: Better than I’ve felt in four years, I can tell you that.
AMY GOODMAN: When did you get the news?
RALPH POYNTER: While I was waiting at the car rental. They said, “Don’t go to the hotel; go to the prison. They’re waiting for you. Get Lynne out.”
CROWD: We love Lynne! We love Lynne! We love Lynne! We love Lynne!
AMY GOODMAN: So, Lynne, where were you yesterday in 2013, and where are you today in 2014?
LYNNE STEWART: Well, I was buried deep in the bowels of Carswell Federal Medical Center, and I use the term loosely.
UNIDENTIFIED: Watch your step here. Watch your step.
AMY GOODMAN: Be careful.
UNIDENTIFIED: Got it? OK.
LYNNE STEWART: Yep, and—
AMY GOODMAN: And when did you get the news?
UNIDENTIFIED: I got you. I got you.
LYNNE STEWART: Around—right around this time, 7:30. Yeah, and couldn’t believe it, thought they were going to stonewall forever. Couldn’t believe it.
AMY GOODMAN: How are you feeling?
LYNNE STEWART: Euphoric, too big a word? But just full of joy and gratitude and so happy to be home. And my oldest grandchild, one of my younger ones.
AMY GOODMAN: What do you want to do when you first go home to your son’s house?
LYNNE STEWART: Sit. I’m good, but I’m not great. You know, I can manage, but I get very, very tired, so…
AMY GOODMAN: Were you surprised by the decision for compassionate release on New Year’s Eve?
LYNNE STEWART: Yes, in a word, I was. Ralph never gave up hope. Ralph was fighting down to the final moments. But me, I was very discouraged. And I figured the strategy was to just keep me in there until I was closer and closer and closer, and then let me come home. And when that didn’t happen, now I’m home. I’m still pretty much with it, I hope. And here I am with these wonderful children and grandchildren, and I look forward to beating the odds now. I look forward to—
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Well, you’ve done it so far.
LYNNE STEWART: We’re trying. Yes, we’re trying.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Can you tell us—can you tell us about the moment they told you? Can you share that with us?
LYNNE STEWART: Well, I was called down for a phone call with my lawyers, and my—Jill Shellow was calling me from France. And she had talked to the U.S. attorney, who said, “Well, the papers are on their way to the judge right now.” And so, then I had a moment, and I said, well, the judge sometimes—well, the judge did what he said he’d do. He said that he would take the papers, and he would look upon them favorably. And by 2:00 in the afternoon, he had signed off on time served.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: And who told you?
LYNNE STEWART: Who told me? Well, varieties of prison officials who kept kind of dragging. But the funny part was, they literally threw me out of the prison. By the time we got all the word, they said—you know, they’re saying—I said, “You know, maybe I ought to stay another day, because,” I said, “there’s so much mixed up here, and I have to get all these papers in order.” And the warden looks at me. He says, “No, you’re going today. We’re going today.”
AMY GOODMAN: And so, what did it feel like to leave the actual prison and the military base?
LYNNE STEWART: And without shackles and without a belly chain and without cuffs on, felt pretty good. And it was like a—it was like a—
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Then you knew it was real.
LYNNE STEWART: It was real.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: And what did your sisters who you’d been there with and suffered through and helped, what did they all think, and what did they say?
LYNNE STEWART: They—
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: What about that experience.
LYNNE STEWART: They say, “We know you won’t forget us.” And I don’t forget them. That’s the hardest part, to leave them behind in that parallel universe and know that, you know, they have—they’re doing these very, very 20-, 30-year sentences. It’s just heart-rending. But I won’t forget them, and that’s why they’re—that’s where I’m headed. I’m going to work for women’s group prisoners and for political prisoners. That’s what I’m going to do.
AMY GOODMAN: You got out of your wheelchair as you were coming through the gate to greet everyone. Why?
LYNNE STEWART: My doctors said, you know, I should use the wheelchair for any distance, because I get very, very tired. But I said I would walk out of jail one day. I was not going to be wheeled out, or I was not going to be dragged out. I do have a walker over here.
AMY GOODMAN: Zenobia, how are you feeling right now with your mom right next to you?
DR. ZENOBIA BROWN: Just amazed and so happy, my dear, dear mother!
AMY GOODMAN: How does it feel to have one of your doctors be your own daughter?
LYNNE STEWART: Pretty good, pretty good. I say it’s the gold—it is really the gold card, because it is so nice to be able to pick up a phone and say—well, I’ve been—I had chemo, and I was like manicky, and I said, “What the heck is the matter with me? I can’t stop talking.” She says, “I think they put some steroid in that particular chemo you had.” And so, I had the answer. I didn’t have to go home and think about what was I acting like.
AMY GOODMAN: You’re very well taken care of, your son a lawyer and your daughter a doctor.
LYNNE STEWART: And another daughter a lawyer. She’s here, too.
AMY GOODMAN: Ralph, Lynne said that you always believed she would get out, but that she didn’t have the same faith.
RALPH POYNTER: Well, I tell you the alternative of not getting her out was totally unacceptable. And this is why we all struggled so hard. And each time we got a no, we, as a group, redoubled and redoubled our efforts. And we—we, we, the people, got her out.
AMY GOODMAN: Lynne, how did you end up in a Texas prison when your family is clearly here in New York?
LYNNE STEWART: Well, you know, the judge recommended Danbury, but I have a number of chronic illnesses. I’m diabetic, blood pressure. It’s the only medical facility for women in the federal prison system. And let me tell you, if that’s the only one, it ain’t much.
AMY GOODMAN: Was Aafia Siddiqui in the prison that you were in?
LYNNE STEWART: She’s a separate—it’s a separate part. They have an administrative unit, where they—and Marie Mason is also in that. She’s a green activist. She’s also in that part of the—what they call the admin building.
AMY GOODMAN: Do you have a message for lawyers in the country today?
LYNNE STEWART: Do better. Do better. Do better than you’ve been doing, because, let me tell you, I talked to an awful lot of women in that place, and it’s—the lawyering is not at a high level, I’m sorry to say.
AMY GOODMAN: How many women were there?
LYNNE STEWART: There are about 2,500.
AMY GOODMAN: Have any thoughts of continuing to practice?
LYNNE STEWART: Well, I’m disbarred, and my Legal Beagle team has said, “It’s not going to be easy to get you back in.” I really don’t. I got to beat this other thing first.
AMY GOODMAN: The cancer.
LYNNE STEWART: Yeah, the cancer, my chemo brain and all the other thing, you know?
AMY GOODMAN: The letter that you wrote talking about prison being a loveless place, why you wanted to leave, your personal appeal to the judge?
LYNNE STEWART: Right, right, right. Well, we felt that we should do a personal appeal at that point. That was—that we were doing sort of an end around, because we knew we had to have BOP make the actual application. But we feel, well, maybe if I write a letter and I put down, you know, just how terrible a place it is, it might move him. I don’t know that it moved him, but I tell you, he got the application at about 10:00 in the morning, and at 2:00 in the afternoon it was signed and back at the prison. So, I have to say, you know, there was something going on there.
AMY GOODMAN: You wrote, “I want to be where all is familiar.”
LYNNE STEWART: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: And where is that?
LYNNE STEWART: Right here. Right here.
AMY GOODMAN: Do you have a message for aging and sick prisoners?
LYNNE STEWART: They just have to hang in there and fight for every inch and never give in and never say—you know, never say “die.” It’s very easy to give up in prison and just become an invalid. But we want people not to give up and to fight them and make them do it right, just like they will do, I hope, for me at Sloan-Kettering, because it’s so important. So important.
AMY GOODMAN: How does it feel to be picking up Lynne?
BRENNA STEWART: Fabulous. Overjoyed.
AMY GOODMAN: Say your name.
BRENNA STEWART: Overjoyed. I’m Brenna. I’m her oldest daughter.
AMY GOODMAN: You’re the lawyer.
BRENNA STEWART: I’m the lawyer, one of them. One of them.
AMY GOODMAN: Did you think this day would be happening?
BRENNA STEWART: I did not think it would be happening.
AMY GOODMAN: Hey, Ralph.
RALPH POYNTER: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: You’re wearing a Mumia Abu-Jamal pin.
RALPH POYNTER: Yes, I am. I wear it everywhere, because we must always struggle for all of our political prisoners, not only Lynne, as Lynne has instructed us over and over and over.
SUPPORTER: Lynne, we love you, Lynne!
AMY GOODMAN: That ends our report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Renée Feltz, at the American Airlines terminal. Lynne Stewart is free.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. You were just listening to Ralph Poynter, Lynne Stewart’s husband, and Lynne herself, as she arrived on New Year’s Day 2014, four years after she was imprisoned. I’m here with Juan González and Bob Boyle, who was also at the airport, who played a key role in winning her compassionate release from federal prison. This was not expected, New Year’s Eve, for this to happen. Talk about how it took place—we only have a few minutes—the word you got on New Year’s Eve.
BOB BOYLE: Well, first of all, the application for compassionate release was approved by the warden of the prison way back around Labor Day. And so, it was since Labor Day that we’ve been waiting for the Central Office of the BOP and the U.S. Attorney’s Office—
AMY GOODMAN: Bureau of Prisons.
BOB BOYLE: —to weigh in—of the Bureau of Prisons. And it was on New Year’s Eve that both Jill Shellow and I received word that the U.S. Attorney’s Office would not be opposing the request and, in fact, had written papers to the judge requesting that she be re-sentenced to time served. Ordinarily, a person knows well in advance the day they’re going to be released from prison, and the family and the lawyers know. So this all happened at once.
As Lynne said in the report, the judge got the papers at about 10:00. They were signed by about 2:00. And the prison did make sure that everything was processed so she was released on New Year’s Eve. And as Lynne said, it was almost a struggle to get her out of the door, because she didn’t know where she was going to go, where—her Medicare—all these things that really, when people get out of prison, they have to deal with, the basic basics of life. And so, it was a unique situation, but we’re thrilled that it happened so quickly.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And the impact of her being in prison for so long now on lawyers across the country, especially in political cases? What’s your sense of what the—the message that has gone out to lawyers around the country?
BOB BOYLE: Well, I mean, I like to think that the message is, is that we have to keep fighting as hard as we always have in political cases and on these issues. Whenever we take on controversial cases, we’re targets on a variety of different levels. And what we have to do as attorneys is expect that, expect that we do—when we do controversial matters and represent individuals who the government thinks of as pariahs, that we have to be, of course, aware that we’re being watched, but fight as much as we always have.
AMY GOODMAN: It’s very interesting, Bob. You were—you worked with Lynne Stewart. You represented cases with her. And then you become her lawyer. But can you explain how it is that she was convicted? Explain what she was charged with.
BOB BOYLE: OK, that’s a—it’s a long story, but just very briefly, she was charged with and convicted of material support to a terrorist organization—very scary characterization. However, what they said she did was to speak to a Reuters reporter and to convey the words or the ideas of her client, Dr. Omar Rahman, to the press, his position on what was going on in Egypt at that time. The government’s theory was that by providing his thoughts and ideas, she was assisting a terrorist organization in Egypt, by simply doing that. And that was essentially the basis of her conviction.
AMY GOODMAN: And she was violating, they said, the SAMs. Explain what they were.
BOB BOYLE: Yeah, the special administrative measures, which prohibited her from disclosing any of his words to the media or really to anyone.
AMY GOODMAN: Now, this is a key point, and we only have a minute. In fact, the prison had dealt with this. This is before 2011.
BOB BOYLE: Yes, this was—
AMY GOODMAN: I mean, 2001, the attacks.
BOB BOYLE: The speaking to the Reuters reporter was in the year 2000. Lynne was—the prison was found out about it. Lynne was disciplined administratively. She was kept from visiting the sheikh for a couple—for a period of time. They then let her back into the prison. It was only then a few years later, in a big indictment announced by Attorney General—then-Attorney General Ashcroft, that he was charged with material support.
AMY GOODMAN: And Lynne Stewart is now free.
BOB BOYLE: And Lynne Stewart is now—is now free. And we should all, as Ralph said, savor this victory that was fought for by all of us.
AMY GOODMAN: Only released after the doctor said she has less than 18 months to live.
BOB BOYLE: Which we’ll take on that fight and make sure it’s longer.
AMY GOODMAN: Bob Boyle, thanks so much for being with us, one of Lynne Stewart’s attorneys.