One of the prosecutors in the case of the online pioneer who killed himself this weekend, Aaron Swartz, was accused in 2008 of driving another hacker to suicide.
Some of Swartz’s friends have accused Assistant United States Attorney Stephen Heymann of contributing to Swartz’s suicide, with his unwillingness to compromise on the prosecution of Swartz in a case involving scholarly journal articles.
Back in 2008, another young hacker, Jonathan James, killed himself after being named a suspect in another Heymann case.
James, the first juvenile put into confinement for a federal cybercrime case, was found dead was two weeks after the Secret Service raided his house as part of its investigation of the TJX hacker case led by Heymann — the largest personal identity hack in history. He was thought to be “JJ,” the unindicted co-conspirator named in the criminal complaints filed with the US District Court in Massachusetts. In his suicide note, James wrote that he was killing himself in response to the federal investigation and their attempts to tie him to a crime which he did not commit:
“I have no faith in the ‘justice’ system. Perhaps my actions today, and this letter, will send a stronger message to the public. Either way, I have lost control over this situation, and this is my only way to regain control.”
“Remember,” he wrote, “it’s not whether you win or lose, it’s whether I win or lose, and sitting in jail for 20, 10, or even 5 years for a crime I didn’t commit is not me winning. I die free.”
Heymann received the Attorney General’s Award for Distinguished Service for “directing the largest and most successful identity theft and hacking investigation and prosecution ever conducted in the United States.”
Swartz’s family has accused Heymann, U.S. Attorneys Scott Garland who was the lead prosecutor, and Massachusetts U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz of contributing to their son’s death, who was known to have suffered from depression. “Aaron’s death is not simply a personal tragedy. It is the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach. Decisions made by officials in the Massachusetts U.S. attorney’s office and at M.I.T. contributed to his death.”
While Ortiz ultimately holds the responsibility for the department, Heymann was the lawyer handling the negotiations with Swartz and his attorneys.
A petition has been put up online demanding that Heymann be fired because of his “overzealous prosecution of an allegedly minor and non-violent electronic crime led to the suicide of Aaron Swartz.”
Christina DiIorio-Sterling, spokesperson for the United States Attorney Office said neither Heymann nor Ortiz would comment. “It is not appropriate to make a public comment,” she said. “We want to respect the family’s privacy at this time.”
In 1998, Heymann also helped bring the first federal prosecution of a juvenile hacker, who brought down air traffic control communications at a Worcester Massachusetts airport. The unidentified teen plead guilty in return for two years probation, a fine, community service and was banned from using a computer with a modem for two years.
Heymann created one of the first computer-crime units in the country. Back in 1996, he prosecuted and supervised the electronic surveillance of the first case using a court-ordered wiretap on a computer network. “Harvard balked at the request,” according to an article in Network World magazine (May 6, 1996). “We don’t monitor the network, and we respect the privacy of our users,” Franklin Steen, the Harvard network director told the magazine. To tap into the system, the DOJ had to get a court order, which came with a gag rule to keep anyone from tipping off the suspect.
The case found Argentinian Julio Cesar Ardita guilty of breaking into the Harvard University computer system, which he then used to break into numerous government sites, including the Department of Defense and NASA.
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