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The Nation

Accused Lawyer Has a Warm, Tough Side

April 10, 2002|JOHN J. GOLDMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — Lynne F. Stewart is a veteran criminal lawyer who can address a jury with the charm and clarity of a kindergarten teacher--a position she once held in New York's public school system.

She can be warm and grandmotherly to reporters and clients alike. At the same time, she knows how to talk tough.

She once called former Assistant U.S. Atty. Patrick Fitzgerald "a crusader, and I mean that in a medieval sense." Fitzgerald was the chief prosecutor in the bombings of two U.S. embassies in East Africa in 1998 linked to Osama bin Laden.

Over the years she has helped defend such clients as Larry Davis, who was found not guilty in 1988 of the attempted murder of nine police officers in the Bronx, and Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, who was convicted in a plot to blow up tunnels, the FBI's Manhattan headquarters and the United Nations.

Last month, she was in court in Brooklyn on behalf of Salvatore "Sammy the Bull" Gravano, whose cooperation with the government played a major role in sending John Gotti, head of the Gambino organized crime family, to prison for life.

Gravano was appearing at a pre-sentencing hearing after pleading guilty last year to distributing the drug ecstasy.

"Lynne is a brilliant courtroom advocate, zealously devoted to her clients," said Ronald L. Kuby, who worked together with Stewart on a series of high-profile cases.

She came to the law late after working as a school librarian and teacher in Harlem in the 1960s, where she was first exposed to poverty, violence and despair.

Stewart, 62, the daughter of teachers, had grown up in an all-white neighborhood in Queens. She graduated from Martin Van Buren High School in Queens in 1957 and Wagner College in 1961.

Stewart received her degree from Rutgers University Law School in 1975.

Lawyers who have opposed her say Stewart has an excellent memory and is extremely prepared when she enters a courtroom. She exhibits a common touch when it comes to pleading a case.

She is certainly not known for her fashion sense. She wears wrinkled clothes and has been known to come into a courthouse wearing a New York Mets cap--her favorite baseball team.

Her office on Broadway, which was searched Tuesday by FBI agents, is hardly the glossy quarters of some defense attorneys. It is above a fast food takeout place and next door to a souvenir shop that sells caps honoring the police and fire departments. Police stood guard at the front door while federal agents carted away files.

Stewart has been a defendant before. In 1999, she ended a decade-long legal fight and pleaded guilty to second degree criminal contempt--a misdemeanor--for refusing to tell a grand jury about the fee arrangements of one of her clients in a drug case.

The plea to the lesser charge, it turned out, allowed her to keep her license to practice law.

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