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Lynne Stewart, civil-rights lawyer later imprisoned in terrorism case, dead at 77

NEW YORK -- A rebellious civil rights lawyer who was sentenced to a decade behind bars for helping a notorious Egyptian terrorist communicate with followers from his U.S. jail cell has died of cancer, three years after her release from prison.

Lynne F. Stewart, who had an unorthodox career representing small-time criminals and radicals alike before losing her law license over her dealings with the terrorist, Omar Abdel-Rahman, died Tuesday at her Brooklyn home, said her husband, Ralph Poynter. She was 77 and had recently suffered strokes.

"She marched to a different drummer, and the drummer was good," an emotional Poynter said Wednesday.

Stewart received a "compassionate release" from prison on Dec. 31, 2013 after serving more than four years of her 10-year sentence. She was convicted of letting Abdel-Rahman, the so-called "Blind Sheikh," overcome strict prison rules meant to cut off contact with the outside world while he served a life sentence for conspiring to assassinate Egypt's president and bomb five New York City landmarks. Stewart was projected to live less than 18 months.

In May 2002, Stewart spoke to 60 Minutes' Mike Wallace. "I knew that there was a possibility that the government would cut me off from him for releasing this statement. But he told me he wanted this statement to get out to his people," she told Wallace. "It's a mistake, but is it an indictable offense? Is this materially aiding a terrorist organization?"

Abdel-Rahman, who was convicted in 1995, died in prison last month. When he was convicted, Stewart wept in court. "I believed, and I believe today, that he is wrongfully convicted," she told "60 Minutes."

Judge John G. Koeltl, who presided over her 2005 trial, initially sentenced Stewart to about two years in prison. He described her in heroic terms, saying her representation of the poor, disadvantaged and unpopular provided a "service not only to her clients but to the nation." He stiffened the sentence after an appeals panel balked.

Stewart was disbarred after being convicted in the case brought six months after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

In interviews, she described herself as a political prisoner. At trial, she called herself a "revolutionary with a small 'r.'"

Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrew S. Dember wrote prior to sentencing that Stewart "played a central role in repeated fraudulent attempts to pass messages to and from Abdel-Rahman."

The mother of seven was a schoolteacher in Harlem in the 1960s before launching a legal career that brought her into the public spotlight. Her clients ranged from small-time crooks to members of the Black Panthers, Weather Underground leaders, a former hit man and a man accused of trying to kill nine police officers.

Despite illness, Stewart remained outspoken to the end. A longtime believer in armed struggle as a way of fostering political revolution, she said in a September interview that the killings of police officers had acted as "a deterrent" against the killings of unarmed civilians by police.

Stewart said violence sometimes leads to societal change, allowing "the more peaceable shepherds among us to approach the wolf."

"I was never happier than walking into court," she said. "In prison, I really learned how appalling the criminal justice system was."

Assistant Federal Defender Sabrina Shroff, who worked with Stewart in 2001, said Stewart was confident, especially at her trial.

"Once they hear my story, they will see," Shroff recalled Stewart saying. "You wanted to just hug her and say: 'This will never happen.'"

Shroff called Stewart a "hodgepodge of contradictions." She noted Stewart would not stand up for the national anthem.

Yet, she added: "Everything she loved was American. Her biggest love was baseball. She loved Thanksgiving."

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