Defending accused terrorists is a pretty thankless task. Now, with lawyer Lynne Stewart’s conviction (and possible 30-year sentence) for providing material support to terrorists when she represented Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, defense attorneys have their own freedom to worry about.
The terror bar is filled with public defenders paid by the court to represent clients few would take voluntarily. “I often encountered people who could not understand how I could justify such work,” says Tamar Birckhead, who represented shoe bomber Richard Reid in 2001.
And the Stewart verdict may have a chilling effect on those who do take these cases. “Obviously, it gives you pause to think you’re a target—it’s always dangerous, but you know that you’re doing your job and it’s necessary,” says Joshua Dratel, president of the New York State Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, who represented one of the four Al Qaeda terrorists convicted for the 1998 U.S. Embassy attacks in Africa and will represent Stewart in her appeal. But he says several lawyers have told him the verdict has made them waver.
There is also concern among Stewart’s peers that attorney-client privilege and the ability of a lawyer to represent his client are threatened by “special administrative measures” (SAMS) that usually limit a terror defendant’s contact to a spouse and legal representatives. (Stewart was found to have “smuggled” messages to others.) Because the government uses video and audio recordings to ensure the SAMS are followed, attorneys may feel constrained in what they can say to their clients.
Richard Lind, whose Al Qaeda client was convicted of stabbing a corrections officer, says he’ll still defend those accused of terrorism. “I’m a zealous advocate,” he says. But he acknowledges that Stewart “may have stepped over the line.” Birckhead agrees: “I do try to remember that no one client is worth risking one’s reputation and livelihood. Somehow, I think she lost sight of that.”