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'Fire Steve Heymann' Petition Reaches Threshold, Must Be Answered By White House

02/13/2013 06:21 pm ET

A White House petition calling for the firing of prosecutor Stephen Heymann, who handled the case against Aaron Swartz, has reached the threshold of signatures needed to warrant an official White House response -- yet the White House has so far been silent.

Sometime between Feb. 8 and Feb. 10, the petition reached 25,000 signatures, an achievement that a video on the White House's website says is enough to have it forwarded to administration officials and to earn it a response. (The threshold was raised to 100,000 shortly after the creation of the Stephen Heymann petition.)

The prosecutor, Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen Heymann, headed the Swartz case along with U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz. Swartz, an Internet pioneer instrumental in the development of social news site Reddit, hanged himself in his Brooklyn, N.Y., apartment in January. He had been accused of illegally downloading nearly 5 million files from the online scholarly database JSTOR and faced faced years in prison and steep fines if he did not plead guilty to his crimes. Even a plea deal would still have landed him in jail for six months.

One of Swartz's lawyers, Andy Good, told the Boston Globe that Heymann knew Swartz was a suicide risk and was nonetheless "heedless" in the way he proceeded with his prosecution of Swartz.

Heymann is a head of the cybercrime unit at the Massachusetts U.S. Attorney's Office and led the successful prosecution in 1997 of an Argentine hacker who had accessed sensitive information on Harvard University networks. The case was the first-ever court-authorized Internet wiretap.

Heymann was also a prosecutor in the biggest identity theft case in the history of the U.S., involving a group of hackers who had accessed tens of millions of consumer credit cards from several major retailers, crimes that cost U.S. companies about $200 million. In one of the harshest cybercrime punishments in history, Heymann secured a total of 38 years in jail for the hackers in that case, including a 20-year sentence for lead hacker Albert Gonzalez (known by his online alias "Soupnazi"). Heymann said he wanted to make an example of Gonzalez.

Another hacker, who wrote a piece of code used in the crime, was given two years in jail, even though he said he made no profit from its use and, according to the New York Times Magazine, was "never fully aware" that his code was being used for illegal purposes.

A 24-year-old man even committed suicide in 2008, shortly after having his house raided as part of that investigation. In his suicide note, he said he was innocent but was afraid authorities were going to make him a scapegoat.

Heymann won an award for his work on that case from the Department of Justice and Attorney General Eric Holder.

A second petition calling for the removal of Ortiz has also reached the signature threshold but has not yet been answered by the White House.

(Hat tip, Wired)

Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

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