There are all kinds of good reasons not to be a criminal defense attorney. We’re underpaid, unappreciated, and constantly forced to defend ourselves at cocktail parties. But until the arrest of Lynne Stewart, It had never occurred to me that we might also run the risk of being suddenly arrested and accused of engaging in a treasonous conspiracy.
Indicted along with several others , including an Arabic interpreter, Ms. Stewart, a prominent criminal defense attorney has been accused, of helping imprisoned Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman send illegal messages to his worldwide terrorist followers. She allegedly did this by speaking in English about irrelevant things while her interpreter spoke about other matters in Arabic.
It’s not a surprise that some cops and prosecutors don’t like defense lawyers. And it makes sense that their dislike of the people they prosecute regularly spills over onto the lawyers that represent them. This is especially true when someone passionately defends a particularly reviled client.
Good defense lawyers, of course, assure the legitimacy of the entire system. Not just inside some federal district courtroom, but in the larger court of public, and even world opinion. And prosecuting one the few lawyers still willing to endure the public scorn that comes with defending really unpopular people is a real mistake. It has a chilling effect on all of us. And when that prosecution is undertaken with this kind of really questionable evidence, it is a clear message to radical lawyers: Back off. Does it surprise me the John Ashcroft would go after a criminal defense lawyer? Not at all, does it disturb me? Hell yes.
There are a number of issues that the Stewart case raises—among them matters of legal interpretation, and attorney client privilege. But let’s leave aside the question of whether the justice department’s theory that pretty much any contact with anyone who turns out to be a terrorist, can be considered to have provided support for terrorism is appropriate. And let’s leave for another day the question of whether the government should ever be taping conversations between attorney’s and clients (as they did here) or whether it is appropriate to insist (as they did) that in order to see a client in prison, a lawyer has to sign a statement pledging to refrain from disseminating the client’s point of view in the press. All of these are terrifying positions. But rather than look at the abstract legal and moral problems that inhere in the case, let’s look at the vaguely absurd substance of the charges against Ms. Stewart—saying things that didn’t get translated.
Now in my years as a public defender, I’ve worked with clients who speak languages ranging from Albanian to Wolof, and I’m no stranger to using interpreters.
In fact, earlier this year, I was in a crowded jailhouse interview room trying desperately to talk to someone who only spoke Cantonese. I had an interpreter with me, so I started slowly. I explained who I was, and tried to put her at ease. Small talk is an important way to build trust. People in jail are usually cut off from their families and friends, and helping them feel connected is a significant part of what a caring lawyer does.
But, minutes later, as I tried to explain the basic nature of the charges, I found myself utterly lost. I’d say something, and then there would be a lengthy exchange between the interpreter and the client. They would nod and bicker back and forth, one seeming to correct the other, each involved in some strange debate to which I wasn’t privy. When I’d break in, the interpreter would explain “I was telling her what a felony is”. “Please just try to translate only what I say”…
“Yeah…Ok” he’d said, but then, just a few minutes later, I’d loose control again. “What doesn’t she understand?” I’d ask. And again a lengthy conversation would ensue. “Look” I said, “she just needs to understand that we are going to see a judge….” I trailed off, ignored completely by the client and the interpreter who could have been discussing politics for all I knew.
Now I don’t know if Lynne Stewart knows any more Arabic than I know Cantonese, but I can’t help wondering if this whole thing isn’t just a big tower of Babel problem. Thinking back on my case, I realize, I don’t have a clue exactly what got explained or how.
It is hard enough trying to bridge the tremendous barriers imposed by language and circumstance. The reality is, much of what I saw to clients is lost in translation. And so, it’s frightening to think that while I’m back in those cells, trying hard just to explain a simple legal concept, the government might be listening in, quietly building a case against me for unwittingly unleashing a Cantonese fatwa.