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8 Mar, 2013 20:34

Secret Service accused of misconduct in Aaron Swartz case

Secret Service accused of misconduct in Aaron Swartz case

The former girlfriend of computer hacker Aaron Swartz is lashing out at the US Justice Department after Attorney General Eric Holder defended the prosecution that some say drove the prodigy into committing suicide.

Swartz took his own life in January while waiting to stand trial in a federal computer fraud case that could have ended with him serving upwards of 35 years in prison. Earlier this week, Attorney General Holder said the suicide was a “tragedy” but that the prosecution was indeed by the books.

The Justice Department, said Holder, demonstrated “a good use of prosecutorial discretion” in going after Swartz, who was charged with illegally accessing a trove of academic articles from the website JSTOR. The attorney general also went on to say that Swartz realistically was only facing a few months in prison, not the three decades reported by the press.

Now only days later, Swartz’s partner Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman has harsh words for the attorney general. In a statement obtained by the website TechDirt, Stinebrickner-Kauffman accuses the DoJ of lying to the American public, seizing evidence without a warrant and other claims.

"Eric Holder and the Department of Justice are clearly trying to mislead the Senate and the public,” she says. “Holder claims that Aaron was only facing months in prison while [Assistant US Attorney Stephen] Heymann and [US Attorney Carmen] Ortiz were actively pursuing a penalty of seven years if the case went to trial. If you believe you're innocent, you should not be coerced into accepting a plea bargain that marks you as a felon for life, just because prosecutors want to boast about taking a scalp.”

Stinebrickner-Kauffman goes on to say that the discrepancy between the plea deal and the amount of prison time prosecutors said they’d pursue at trial violates the DOJ's own guidelines, and accuses Holder of “trying to engage in revisionist history at the same time he claims that the strict sentences pursued by prosecutors were a 'good use of prosecutorial discretion.'”

In addition to singling out Holder, Stinebrickner-Kauffman goes on to accuse the Massachusetts attorneys who spearheaded the case, Heymann and Ortiz.

“[T]his isn't just about sentencing,” she writes. “Steve Heymann engaged in serious prosecutorial misconduct on multiple occasions. Public documents show that he instructed the Secret Service to seize and hold evidence without a warrant, violating the Fourth Amendment. He then lied to the judge about that fact in written briefs. And he withheld exculpatory evidence from Aaron's lawyers for over a year, despite both a legal and ethical obligation to turn it over. If this constitutes appropriate behavior from the perspective of the Department of Justice, then we live in a police state.”

“The Department of Justice is not interested in admitting their errors, even when an out of control US Attorney's office has cost this country one of our best and brightest. The DOJ is only interested in covering their asses," Stinebrickner-Kauffman concludes.

TechDirt reporter Mike Masnick says the statement demonstrates “three really serious charges that I haven't seen much discussion about previously.” Although Holder, Heymann and Ortiz have been accused or prosecutorial overreach in the past, Stinebrickner-Kauffman’s latest claims allege much more.