U.S. Attorney Stephen Heymann prosecutes computer hackers with such passion that he is under fire for being associated with two suicides. Activist Aaron Swartz was under indictment in one of Heymann’s computer hacking cases and had a history of severe depression. He committed suicide in January after months of pressure from Heymann. According to a Feb. 12 article in Wired, Swartz's supporters quickly petitioned the White House to fire Heymann. The petition has now passed the 25,000-signature threshold for a mandatory White House response.
J.L. from Anchorage, Alaska created the petition titled "Fire Assistant U.S. Attorney Steve Heymann" on January 12, saying, "Assistant U.S. Attorney Steve Heymann's overzealous prosecution of an allegedly minor and non-violent electronic crime led to the suicide of Aaron Swartz," The petition ends with a call for Barack Obama to fire Attorney Steve Heymann "before his reckless prosecutions claim any more lives."
A second petition calls for the White House to fire Heymann’s superior, U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz. That petition is at more than 52,000 signatures.
The White House petition process became so popular that the response threshold went up to 100,000 electronic signatures. According to a Feb. 12 Forbes article, older petitions qualify at the original level and the White House must respond.
After Swartz committed suicide, two congressional representatives joined supporters in questioning whether his hacking case warranted any jail time or overly aggressive prosecution. Swartz never profited from the JSTOR downloads and he returned the files. After he returned the files, JSTOR refused to press charges against him.
Heymann works for the Massachusetts U.S. attorney’s office as chief of the one of the first computer crime units in the U.S. He once won a record-breaking 15-year prison stretch for TJ Maxx credit card hacker Albert Gonzalez. Co-defendant Jonathan James committed suicide. In 1996, Heymann initiated the first internet wiretap in history to apprehend a man in Argentina who was hacking into Harvard's computer network.
While the Swartz case may have revived Heymann's public service profile, there are compelling arguments against his tendencies to overzealous prosecution, especially since two people have committed suicide while dealing with him.