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MUHAMMAD: Courageous Attorney 'Free at Last'

Askia Muhammad | 1/15/2014, 3 p.m.
Askia Muhammad

Free at last. Free at last. Courageous defense attorney Lynne Stewart is free at last!

After months of demonstrations, public and private pleas to authorities, and prodding of Justice Department officials, attorney Lynne Stewart is home, free.

She should never have been imprisoned in the first place. Her crime? She zealously represented her client – blind, Egyptian Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman – by reading a press release after his 1995 conviction for the first bombing of New York’s World Trade Center. She was released from a federal prison in Texas Dec. 31, after a federal judge ordered her “compassionate release.” Lynne Stewart suffers from incurable stage 4 cancer, and has been told by her doctors she has less than 18 months to live.

In 2005 Stewart was found to have breast cancer; in 2012, doctors determined that her cancer had spread to her lungs, lymph system and bones. Her spirits soared upon her release, but her physical condition remains grave.

After the director of the Bureau of Prisons and the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York made formal requests on her behalf, U.S. District Court Judge John G. Koeltl agreed and ordered her compassionate release. I believe I may have personally had something to do with the decision by Justice Department officials.

“It’s absolutely devastating really, because she has spent far too long in a federal prison medical facility with stage-4 lung cancer,” Noelle Hanrahan of the Prison Radio Project told me in an interview after Stewart was released. “Her prognosis is difficult and not good, and the conditions under which she received medical care for the last two years have been very, not appropriate,” Hanrahan said.

“Her diagnosis occurred nine months before she was able to receive treatment. She had to go to all of her oncology appointments in chains – foot restraints, leg restraints – her ability to get care was greatly diminished. She should have been with her family far before this.

“While we’re triumphant in some ways, we’re also very deeply saddened because her health conditions are grave,” Hanrahan continued. “Ten pounds of chains for a 74-year-old woman who had stage-4 lung cancer? Battling cancer is hard enough if you’re outside, but imagine doing it in a Texas prison.”

Stewart’s treatment will continue now at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Treatment Center in New York.

One of the many nudges to federal officials on behalf of Stewart’s release came from this writer to Attorney General Eric Holder. In a White House meeting with members of The Trotter Group of African American Columnists and Commentators, I asked Holder about how few pardons and grants of clemency President Barack Obama has issued, and in particular about her appeal for compassionate release.

“I’m not familiar with Ms. Stewart’s case … I know of her case, I’m not aware of the condition that you mention,” Holder said in response to my question. “She has stage-4 cancer and has been given just months to live,” I said. “That’s something … I was not aware of that, and that is something I will be looking at when I get back to my office,” the Attorney General promised.

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