We previously discussed how the Justice Department hounded Aaron Swartz in a prosecution that sought 35 years in prison for his effort to make academic papers available to the public — even though MIT did not ask for such charges and later released the papers free of charge to the public. United States Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz and the Obama Administration were long criticized for the prosecution but remained committed to destroying Swartz — a move that clearly delighted copyright hawks that have tremendous influence over the Administration as discussed earlier. Given the high-profile nature of the case and the months of criticism, it is clear that Main Justice in Washington had to be monitoring the case. Now it appears that Swartz’s line prosecutor, Assistant United States Attorney Stephen Heymann was connected to a prior suicide of a defendant in a similar case. In 2008, Jonathan James killed himself while being pursued by Heymann in a criminal hacker case. Heymann then moved on to Swartz who also killed himself — complaining of the abusive treatment by the Justice Department. It is worth noting that the Justice Department could not come up with a single charge for anyone associated with the torture program, including the attorneys who facilitated the program. However, it wanted 35 years for a man accused of illegally gaining access to a university site and downloading academic papers to make available to the public for free. Those documents later released for free to the public but the Obama Administration still felt jail time was essential in the interests of justice.
Heymann secured a record by making James the first juvenile jailed in a federal cybercrime case. James insisted in his suicide note that he was innocent but that the prosecutors would not leave him alone. He wrote “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.”
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.”
Heymann is accused by a lawyer of using the Swartz case as a high-profile opportunity for himself and refused to accept a plea that did not involve a confession to all counts and a guarantee of prison time.
The Swartz case remains a serious concern with many of us. The extreme sentence sought in the case is troubling for an individual who was an advocate for public access and did not have a financial motive in his actions. He was a long-standing critic of the Obama Administration for its treatment of information under copyright and trademark laws as well as President Obama’s “hit list” policy.
Of course, it is doubtful that any serious investigation will come from the controversy. The Justice Department is notorious for whitewashing such controversies and the Administration has long followed the directions of industry and lobby groups on these laws, including criminalizing copyright violations. Both Congress and the White House have repeatedly yielded to increasing penalties and power for these groups. Swartz is simply the latest victim of this trend. Thousands of less well known citizens have been pursued for ruinous damages or criminal charges.