WASHINGTON -- The federal prosecutor who reportedly insisted on jail time for the late Aaron Swartz was "very, very difficult to deal with," Swartz's lawyer told The Huffington Post.
In a phone interview Monday, Swartz's attorney Elliot Peters accused Massachusetts assistant U.S. attorney Stephen Heymann of pursuing federal charges against Swartz to gain publicity.
Heymann was looking for "some juicy looking computer crime cases and Aaron's case, sadly for Aaron, fit the bill," Peters said. Heymann, Peters believes, thought the Swartz case "was going to receive press and he was going to be a tough guy and read his name in the newspaper."
Heymann, the deputy chief of the criminal division in the Boston-based U.S. Attorney's office, also headed the computer crimes task force there, a position Peters said "doesn't carry much prestige and respect unless you have computer crimes cases."
Swartz, an open-democracy advocate, was found dead in an apparent suicide on Friday at the age of 26. He had been facing years in prison for downloading millions of articles from the online database JSTOR using the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's library. JSTOR declined to pursue civil charges against Swartz and urged federal prosecutors to abandon the case. MIT did not, and is currently reviewing its role in the case.
Peters said Heymann was threatening Swartz with potentially longer prison sentences if Swartz didn't accept his plea deal offers.
"He was very intransigent," Peters said of Heymann. "It was his philosophy that as you got closer to trial the plea offers only got worse. But the offer he was making was so unreasonable that having it get worse didn't concern me much."
Heymann did not respond to HuffPost's requests for comment. Reached by reporters at his home over the weekend, Heymann referred calls to the U.S. Attorney's Office. Spokeswoman Christina Sterling, who issued a statement over the weekend saying the office wished to respect the Swartz family's privacy, declined further comment.
Internet activists began posting Heymann's personal information online -- including his home phone number and links to his now-deactivated Facebook account -- after news reports highlighted his involvement in the Swartz case.
Heymann is the son of Phillip Heymann, the former head of the Justice Department's Criminal Division. The younger Heymann has had an interest in cyber crimes since the mid-1990s. He oversaw the "first use of a court-ordered wiretap on a computer network" in 1996 and brought the first federal prosecution of a juvenile computer hacker who disabled a regional airport’s control tower computer in 1998.
During another investigation in the 1990s, Heymann wanted Harvard to place a electronic banner on its intranet telling users they were being monitored, as Network World reported. He said would allow the feds to monitor the network without getting a court order. Harvard disagreed, saying it respected the privacy of its users.
According to his Harvard biography, Heymann is responsible for supervising approximately 80 criminal prosecutors and reviewing the majority of approximately 400 indictments returned and informations filed annually.
Swartz wasn’t the first young computer guru to come into contact with the Massachusetts U.S. Attorney’s Office who ultimately took his own life. Hacker Jonathan James killed himself in May 2008 at the age of 24, writing in a suicide note that he had “no faith in the ‘justice’ system.” His friend Christopher Scott was charged with breaching retail networks, and James was reportedly the “J.J.” mentioned in the indictment. James said he had nothing to do with the retail hack but believed that the feds would try to pin it on him. Scott had contacted him, and James believed he was working with federal prosecutors.
“The feds play dirty. Chris called me the other day. He was in jail and they let him out. That can only mean that he too is trying to pin this on me,” James wrote in his suicide note.
Four months after James’ death, the Justice Department announced it had reached a plea agreement with Scott. The prosecutor on the case was Stephen Heymann.
Peters, Swartz’s lawyer, told HuffPost that Heymann had harassed several of the activist’s friends into testifying before a grand jury. Peters said federal prosecutors deserved some blame for his death, echoing comments from Swartz's family.
"The people who really lost their way here and turned it into a much bigger case than it should have been were the feds," Peters said.
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.