NEW YORK -- An imprisoned former civil rights lawyer who's dying of cancer and wants to be freed faced skepticism Thursday from a judge who wondered whether he had authority to immediately order her release from her 10-year sentence in a terrorism case.
Lynne Stewart, 73, was convicted of letting a blind Egyptian sheik communicate with followers while he was serving life in a plot to blow up five New York City landmarks and assassinate then-Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Stewart has been imprisoned since 2009.
Weeks ago, federal officials rejected her first request to die at home in Brooklyn in part on grounds that she had more than 18 months to live. Stewart filed another request Wednesday, and her lawyers say doctors have revised that estimate to less than 18 months.
U.S. District Judge John Koeltl questioned lawyers Thursday during a Manhattan hearing that lasted more than an hour. He did not immediately rule on Stewart's request. Stewart, being held at the Federal Medical Center, Carswell, in Fort Worth, Texas, was not at the hearing.
But the courtroom was packed with her supporters, nearly 100 of whom rallied for two hours outside the courthouse before the arguments. Former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark, who represented the sheik with Clark, also attended the proceeding.
Her attorney Jill Shellow cited a law as providing grounds to release Stewart but the judge said that law did not seem to give him the authority to do so without a recommendation by the federal Bureau of Prisons that Stewart qualifies for compassionate release.
At one point Thursday, Koeltl asked prosecutors: "You don't think she has a strong argument for compassionate release, do you?"
Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrew Dember answered that Stewart's condition was not relevant to the arguments because the judge lacked the authority to reduce her sentence without a recommendation by prison authorities.
"There's no doubt Ms. Stewart is ill," Dember said. "No one's disputing Ms. Stewart's illness, your honor."
Shellow said Stewart has been subjected to inferior medical treatment in prison because it took more than five months to get a biopsy done after a suspected malignancy was discovered last year. She said Stewart's prison doctors and her warden have supported her application for compassionate release, only to have it rejected in Washington.
Stewart has written to the judge, saying she doesn't want to die in "a strange and loveless place" and wants to go home.