New claims of prosecutor misconduct in Aaron Swartz case

The late activist's lawyers have released complaint made to DoJ that prosecutors withheld evidence, overreached

Published March 14, 2013 7:26PM (EDT)

Aaron Swartz       (Wikipedia)
Aaron Swartz (Wikipedia)

Since Aaron Swartz's suicide in January, severe criticism has been directed at the federal prosecutors who brought hefty felony charges against the technologist. While I have written here previously on how the prosecutor's actions in Swartz's case reflect a broader tendency of prosecutorial overreach and activist targeting in this country, recent revelations have shed light on the specific misconduct claims levied at Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen Heymann, the lead prosecutor in Swartz's case.

In a letter (made public Wednesday) to an internal Justice Department ethics unit from January 2013, Swartz’s lawyers argue that Heymann engaged in prosecutorial misconduct by "withholding key evidence from Swartz’s defense team and overreaching in his attempt to coerce Aaron into waiving his right to trial." A press release regarding the letter to the ethics unit noted:

In the letter to the Justice Department, Swartz’s attorney, Elliot Peters, elaborates on a legal complaint made earlier in the month that indicates how Heymann had withheld exculpatory evidence at a December 2012 hearing that would have demonstrated whether the government had properly obtained a warrant to search Swartz’s computer and thumb drive.  Email evidence later revealed that Heymann made false statements about his ability to provide and obtain those materials.   In that December hearing, Swartz’s legal defense team was given that evidence only after the hearing had concluded.

In a blog post Thursday, Swartz's partner Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman urged that further Congressional investigations be made into the case and Heymann's actions:

[I]t seems entirely clear the Heymann would not have turned over this crucial piece of evidence if the judge had not ruled at the status conference that there would be an evidentiary hearing in January. That implies that there may well be more exculpatory evidence that Heymann has also illegally withheld, and that we don’t know about yet. That’s why Congress must subpoena all of Heymann’s files in this case, not just the evidence he submitted to the Court that we already know about.

By Natasha Lennard

Natasha Lennard is an assistant news editor at Salon, covering non-electoral politics, general news and rabble-rousing. Follow her on Twitter @natashalennard, email

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Aaron Swartz Cybercrime Federal Prosecutors Justice Department Stephen Heymann