Sign now, get the US Attorney who hounded Aaron Swartz fired

Assistant U.S. Attorney Steve Heymann is the boss of Carmen Ortiz, and the man primarily responsible for the over-the-top, vindictive prosecution of Aaron Swartz. A petition to get him fired has until Monday to collect 25,000 signatures. Here's some notes from Taren, Aaron's partner:

Heymann saw Aaron as a scalp he could take. He thought he could lock Aaron up, get high-profile press coverage, and win high-fives from his fellow prosecutors in the lunchroom. Aaron was a way of reviving Heymann’s fading career. Heymann had no interest in an honest assessment of whether Aaron deserved any of the hell he was being put through.

I believe that Heymann is guilty of prosecutorial misconduct on several levels, but I can’t prove it until we have a proper investigation. Among other things, many of the court documents that Aaron’s lawyers have access to that would help make that case are currently under protective order. Not, to be clear, to protect Aaron — Aaron’s family and I want the documents to be public. It’s the prosecutors whose interest is served by keeping the documents secret.

I also suspect there may be other documents we don’t have that, if subpeonaed, could help us show that Heymann was bending or even breaking the rules in his vicious quest to make an example out of Aaron.

For all these reasons, we need an investigation in order to understand better how personally involved Carmen Ortiz was in Heymann’s actions. Several members of Congress are pushing for answers from the DOJ.

But there is another critical front: this petition. In the aftermath of Aaron’s death, supporters started two petitions on, the official website of the White House. One was for Carmen Ortiz, Heymann’s boss, to be fired. That petition has already surpassed the required 25,000* signature threshold, which means that the White House must respond to it publicly. The other is for Steve Heymann to be fired. It is hovering at around 11,000 signatures as of this writing, and the deadline is Monday.

We need this petition to get to 25,000* signatures by Monday, February 11. Please sign it right now, and share it with everyone you know. Even if Heymann is not fired in direct response to this petition, the White House’s responsibility to respond to it will open up crucial fronts in the investigation as to what went so terribly, terribly wrong with our justice system in Aaron’s case...

Heymann and Ortiz wanted to make an example out of Aaron. Instead, we as a society must make an example out of Heymann and Ortiz. Prosecutors must understand that they have moral responsibilities. They cannot simply hide behind the phrase “prosecutorial discretion” to justify any decision. Their actions have consequences, and they must be held accountable to them.

Fire Assistant U.S. Attorney Steve Heymann.


  1. I’ve signed both petitions, but the response is going to be something like this: Why We Can’t Comment. Since it has been a month and the White House hasn’t done anything, unless the Congressional hearings pull up enough dirt, Carmen Ortiz will probably continue in her post until at least November (when the President can easily nominate someone else). Stephen Heymann is probably even harder to fire since he wasn’t politically appointed. I don’t have a lot of hope that anything is going to be done very soon.

    1. If this petition ends up simply being a permanent stain on his reputation that can be referred to in future evaluations or runs for various offices, it’s still something.

  2. There needs to be a correction.  An Assistant is, by their very title, not the boss of the person who has their title without the Assistant part.  

  3. I’m Canadian and can’t sign this, so I tried to spread the word a bit to American friends on Facebook. I wish I had been lucky enough to know Aaron. After his death I went and inhaled most of his blog. He was an amazing person. We need minds like his to build a better future for ourselves… his loss was tragic and even worse, avoidable. Ortiz and Heymann deserve to lose their jobs at the very least. Best of luck getting a response from the White House.

  4. So is Heymann the boss of Ortiz or is Ortiz the boss of Heymann?  Your blurb has it one way but the quote has it the other way.

  5. Quick question — how many of these whitehouse petitions that have exceeded the signature threshold have produced any tangible outcomes whatsoever? Can anyone point to a single government policy change that has ever come from these petitions?

  6. This could set a dangerous precedent where prosecutors fear that if they aggressively seek completely disproportionate sentences against well-liked people for doing things that are only very tenuously wrong to begin with, then all those people will have to do is kill themselves and suddenly the prosecutor might be in trouble!

    Think of the chill this could send through prosecutors.  They may have to stick to seeking completely disproportionate sentences against people who are unknown or cared for by only their families and immediate friends.

    1. The problem is they will always have that fear in the back of their mind, “What if this isn’t a little person I’m squashing here?  What if it’s someone who matters?”

      My God, it would be like having to play Russian Roulette at work every day!

    2. then all those people will have to do is kill themselves

      You phrase it as though killing one’s self is a triviality.  Do you really mean to imply that?

  7. Disturbingly, Carmen Ortiz was one of the frequent names bandied about as a potential contender for John Kerry’s senate seat. None of the political horserace articles noted her involvement in the Schwartz prosecution, while the anger directed at her job as US Attorney fails to take into account her political ambitions.

    It’s important that we remember her later when she runs for public office.

    1. The only consolation I have so far is the likelihood that Ms. Ortiz is now “radioactive” politically around Boston and Massachusetts. No one with any ethics or sense will have anything to do with her.

      If she runs for office … any office … it will only validate what many, many people around Boston have long thought of her: she’s out to advance her career at any cost. Inspector Jaevert would be right at home working with her.

  8. Get busy and sign the petition!

    I just created my account and signed it.

    10, 898 signatures to go.

    Get on it and pass the word!


  9. Signed…just as I signed the previous one.  This is not an isolated case: Ms. Ortiz has made a specialty of this type of malevolent “law enforcement.” 

    That she is STILL in office is something that must be remedied. That Heymann is still there is a complete outrage. If they had any honor, they would resign.  

    As if.

  10. So you’re demanding an investigation, but before that you want the guy fired?

    So you’re asserting their was misconduct, without evidence, and want a guy to lose his job and his health insurance because you don’t like what happened?

    Why don’t we just have a petition to do an investigation?

    Why fire this guy before we know all the facts?

    It’s ironic that we have a mob with online petitions rather than pitchforks who want to punish someone without a trial over how they were trying to carry out a trial.

    Nerds need to grow up.  

    1.  I guess you’ll never get it. The clincher was calling everyone (us) “nerds”. I guess you’d include Aaron in that group. So much for expectations of truth and justice from you…

    2. I’m assuming, when you say “nerds” you mean people who are capable of following the events around this story and what led to it.

      I don’t believe this petition is childish.

  11. First, you’re not getting anybody fired with a petition. And second, you’re going after the wrong damn target anyway. The problem isn’t that “Somebody hounded my friend Aaron to death.” The problem is that this is standard behavior by prosecutors in all criminal accusations. They habitually use vague and overlapping laws to lard on the charges and try to pressure a confession. But those people don’t have powerful friends to seek revenge for them. Lawyer Orin Kerr writes extensively about it here:

    This kind of activity is retrograde bullshit for a simple reason — it does not teach prosecutors to avoid this sort of behavior. It teaches them to avoid it when dealing with individuals with powerful and important friends, to treat prominent people differently than ordinary citizens. Even if unsuccessful, you’ve succeeded in taking a legal system that already has two tiers of defendants and made it worse.

    1. This.

      The problem here isn’t that Heymann and Ortiz violated the standards of their profession.  The problem is that they didn’t.  I’d love to see all sorts of nasty things happen to those two.  But however loathsome they are, two individuals don’t make a systemic problem, and getting rid of them won’t fix it.

      But I’m still signing the petition :)

  12. I plan to sign, but wonder if we might not get a lot farther by taking the same route that led to victory against SOPA — that is, hounding our individual representatives through all available communication channels and, in firm but non-abusive language, demanding *they* do something. 

    Even people outside the USA could take an equivalent step by contacting their various reps and asking them to make public statements condemning both the prosecution’s behavior and that, as somebody above noted, that it’s evidently now SOP here in the US.  It’s one thing for citizens around the world to be disgusted; when the people making decisions start complaining, however…

    Also, just as a side note, I hope you plan to address the long (smear) article on Swartz over in the “tech” area of in some manner.  (At least, it struck me as being a smear piece; maybe you’ll feel differently.)

  13. i was afraid to sign…and that is why i signed BOTH petitions. I don’t care anymore if it wakes anyone up…i did it because what happened to Aaron Swartz was wrong. Aaron Swartz’s death was the last straw. I won’t let
    myself be a coward…Aaron Swartz was brave.

  14. Friday, Feb. 8, 2013 

    Signatures needed by February 11, 2013 to reach goal of 25,000:

    857 signatures

  15. I’m not defending Carmen Ortiz in this post:

    Please don’t use that word (bitch). There are too many sexist connotations with that word. When it is directed at a woman it means that the woman is not conforming to her assigned gender norm and is not accepting male authority (hence, she is a ‘dog’). It is the type of insult that is typically hurled at strong women for being strong. When it is used at men it is comparing the man to the type of woman that is hated as a method of emasculation: a woman who doesn’t conform to gender norms and won’t accept male authority. And even when it is used neutrally, it is only by comparison to the first case that the word gets its power. There are no equivalent words with the same level of hate that describe men.

  16. We need a national dialogue on the practice of piling on charges to coerce defendants into accepting unjust plea bargains.

    The prosecution was apparently in the business of annihilation. Swartz faced spiritual annihilation and financial annihilation, with no viable means of escape. To my mind, our justice system is out of control. The prosecution took leave of their senses. Unfortunately, this kind of tragedy is all too commonplace, and most of the time goes unreported.

    The suicide of Aaron Swartz in the face of the appalling over-reach of unchecked discretionary prosecutorial power highlights a much larger problem that pervades our legal system.

    The entire US legal system (including criminal, civil, and family court divisions) is routinely used in an outrageously abusive manner.

    Those who are traumatized, stigmatized, or victimized by such shenanigans within the legal system may suffer what has come to be called Legal Abuse Syndrome.

    In the field of Medicine, every proposed treatment or cure has to be carefully studied and reviewed to ensure that it has demonstrated therapeutic value, and does not inadvertently spread, exacerbate, or even cause the malady it sets out to treat. In the medical literature, a treatment is called “iatrogenic” if it is counter-productive to the primary objective of curing disease.

    The field of Law does not employ such safeguards, and as a result a substantial fraction of our public policies and practices, operating under the color of law, turn out to be iatrogenic — ineffective at best and counter-productive at worst.

    Alan Simpson, the retired Senator from Wyoming, spent some three decades in Congress, during which time he helped craft and enact a great deal of legislation. But after he retired, he remarked that during his tenure in Washington politics, he discovered a law, the way a scientist would discover a natural law. Simpson said he discovered the Law of Unintended Consequences, meaning that the actual outcome of legislation, passed in good faith with an expectation of curing one of society’s ills, frequently turned out to have unanticipated, unexpected, and undesirable consequences. In science, if one is relying on a theoretical model, and the actual outcome of an experiment does not jibe with that predicted by the model, one is obliged to discard the model as unreliable.

    Our governmental systems are rife with unreliable models which give rise to unwise practices, many of which are ineffective at best and counter-productive at worst. We have built governmental systems that lack viable safeguards against iatrogenic treatments of many of our most problematic social ills.

    Here is an example of the kind of scholarly article one might find on JSTOR (which recently relaxed its policies to make many more of them freely available without a costly institutional subscription).

    “Punishment and Violence: Is the Criminal Law Based on One Huge Mistake?” by James Gilligan, Harvard University; published in the Journal of Social Research, Fall 2000.  

    If more people had been familiar with that remarkable piece of scholarship from Harvard University, Aaron Swartz would very likely be alive today.

  17. I agree that we need to elevate the discourse to a level of scholarship worthy of Aaron Swartz.  After all, he wanted to liberate scholarly articles, not disseminate angry diatribes.

    Perhaps Carmen Ortiz really does believe she is carrying out her duties in an appropriate manner as she said in her public statement of January 16th.  But in that same statement, she conceded this point:

    “I know that there is little I can say to abate the anger felt by those who believe that this office’s prosecution of Mr. Swartz was unwarranted and somehow led to the tragic result of him taking his own life.” –U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz

    If the prosecutor is able to recognize the scale of the anger and outrage directed at her office, then surely she must appreciate that the human emotion of anger arises from deep-seated feelings of injustice. What more compelling evidence is there that the outrageous conduct of her office was patently unjust in the most fundamental meaning of the concept of justice?

    Back in January, on Timothy B. Lee’s article on Forbes about the corrupt practice of plea bargains, one poster asked, “What part of the US Attorney’s prosecution of Aaron Swartz was incorrect?”

    Here is what I wrote in response: That’s an excellent question, and it deserves a thoughtful answer.

    The logic of our system of law operates upon an axiom that dates back some 3760 years, when Hammurabi of Mesopotamia wrote down one of the first collections of codified laws. The underlying axiom is that codified laws and associated punishments are the most appropriate and efficacious method of regulating the behavior of members of a human society. We can call this concept the Hammurabic Method of Social Regulation, more popularly known as Law and Order.

    In mathematical logic, all the results of an otherwise logical inference or procedure depend on the validity of the underlying axioms which are adopted on faith and without proof.

    There have been a number of rigorous, carefully crafted, and insightful studies of the axiomatic beliefs that undergird our system of law. Some of these are mathematical studies which gave rise to the modern branch of mathematics known as Chaos Theory. Some of these are sociological studies which dig into the roots of violence in our culture.

    Have you ever asked yourself, “Why do we believe in the Rule of Law?”

    From the point of view of a mathematician, scientist, or systems analyst, it’s a fascinating question to study.

    I happen to be one of the few souls who have taken the time and effort to review the research into this curious question, using the most powerful tools for thought that are necessary for any critical thinking exercise requiring a rigorous combination of mathematical, scientific, and analytical thinking.

    I’ll skip here to the bottom line: I disbelieve in the Hammurabic Method of Social Regulation. I have come to disbelieve in it because I discovered it is derived from an axiomatic foundation that has been patently falsified by careful scientific and mathematical analysis dating back for well over a century of modern analytical thinking, and before that to much earlier insights prior to the advent of modern scientific and mathematical method.

    Aaron Swartz fell into a HOLE in our culture. It’s a gigantic HOLE that has bedeviled humankind since the dawn of civilization.

    See “The HOLE Story” which briefly outlines the parameters of the technical analysis and highlights the primary clues which led me to my startling conclusion.

  18. Many years ago, an insightful psychologist remarked to me, “The world is not a Just Place. It’s just a place.”

    The dream of crafting a just society is such an unrealistic objective that few among us have the hubris to make it their life work. And the few who do tend to live uncommonly brief lives.

    I suppose it’s little consolation that some of these quixotic souls have religions, holidays, or laws named after them.

    To my mind, controlling or manipulating people by trafficking in fear is a manifestly unwise practice. It tends to drive human drama toward tragedy. Is our species so foolish as to embrace and defend the practice of intimidation and fear-mongering as a sensible means of governance under the color of law?

  19. He was rooting around in a *public* closet, in order to get access to files he was *legitimately entitled to access*.  There is no part of this story that justifies the insane charges and sentences proposed for Aaron; they had nothing to do with the case, and everything to do with the system’s resentment for Aaron for his work in… improving access to justice.

    If this happened to me, I would want the police to take it seriously.  Then investigate.  Then realise it was an utterly unimportant misdemeanour, and drop it.

    And yes, it is the job of prosecutors to make ethical judgements.  Because it’s the job of everybody.

  20. Yeah, we want Heymann and Ortiz fired from their jobs because they are catastrophically bad at their jobs and should never have gotten them in the first place.  If I hired a handyman to do work around my house and instead he burned it to the ground and shot my dog, I’d fire him too.

    Now, it is true that these firings might encourage other prosecutors to do better at their jobs, but that is largely a side effect.

  21. Demonstrably yes, Barry.  Yes, our species is exactly that foolish.

    But my sympathy for these prosecutors is zero.  This is exactly how prosecution works in the current US system; having dished it out to so many, they are in no position to complain if the tables are turned.

  22. Thanks for this thoughtful analysis, Barry, and especially for that link.  A point I’ve been meaning to raise is that most activism on this to date has been aimed at changing the specific laws under which Aaron was mischarged. 

    But that doesn’t really help with the problem; there’s always something you can be charged with.  What we really need to fix is the systemic motivation to write poor laws, and to misapply the law to harass individuals.  That’s a much harder job, but it’s the only solution that can stick.

    (Fixing computer law is still worth doing, of course, but it’s patching the holes, not solving the problem.)

  23. Politics, tied as it is to human emotion and so tightly bound to financial and material prosperity (both for the politician and his/her represented constituents), is inherently an irrational institution.

    It’s good to cross paths with you again, Moulton. You might remember me as Macro, back on Micro. (That was not intentional, for the record.)

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