Inside the prosecution of Aaron Swartz

Quinn Norton -- who was romantically involved with Aaron Swartz for a long time, and was also his close friend -- has written a brutal, honest, infuriating, and brave account of her dealings with Steve Heymann, the prosecutor who hounded Aaron over his downloading of scientific journal articles. Heymann is a terror among Aaron's friends. Everyone I know who has met him has described him as a vicious, vindictive, authoritarian thug who destroys lives for giggles and notches on his bed-post.

Quinn's piece sheds light on the awful cruelty of the system, for which Aaron's case was a microcosm. America imprisons more people than any other country in the history of the world. 97% of those indicted by federal prosecutors are intimidated into pleading guilty, which means that if a prosecutor like Heymann decides you should go to jail, 97% of the time, you will be coerced into prison without even getting a chance to make a defense (the coercion relies on threats of decade upon decade of prison and bankruptcy for you and all you love should you try to fight).

At first they didn't ask me about Aaron. They were questioning me, trying to get me to admit I knew something. They made me retell everything Aaron had told me, but it was all taken directly from their own arrest record. The harsh questioning about me threw me off balance.

They leaned in and loomed over me physically, calling me a liar, scowling and pausing and narrowing their eyes at me. I was cowed. Much of the time I spent telling them the same things, that I didn't know what he'd been doing, that I never asked what the arrest was for when he called me. They told me that was unnatural; they didn't believe me. I wanted to say, "Of course I wouldn't ask! There was a chance I'd be dealing with you people."

They said I must have known something because I was connected with hackers. They knew this, they told me, because they'd read everything I'd ever written online. I bit my lip. I fought the urge to say "If I'd known, we wouldn't be here. There's no chance you would know a thing."

They said they knew we were close because they'd found a car seat in his apartment. I really did look at them like they were idiots at that point. We'd been together for years. A simple google query would show more than a car seat.

Life Inside the Aaron Swartz Investigation


  1. “America imprisons more people than any other country in the history of the world.”

    Solzhenitsyn calls hyperbole. Suggest this be amended from “more people than any other country” to something like “the highest percentage of its population”.

    (Yes, I know, ‘rhetorical effect’, etc.)

    1. How about this:

      The US is a torturing nation on par with Saudi Arabia and Iran which never held anyone accountable for these crimes against humanity except the guy who leaked these crimes to the public.

      Hyperbole enough?

    2. USA: We don’t have the most prisoners of any country, ever.  Just the most prisoners of any country right now.

      It’s a sad day when you only look good compared to Stalin.

      1. Which is nearly the truth, and also makes the narrative the strongest.  “Except for Stalin and Hitler, the USA has the most prisoners in history.”     (Because I would consider every single person corralled into a ghetto or passing through a concentration camp a prisoner, not to mention the tens of millions of outright murders, in or out of a camp.)

    3.  Merely deleting “history of the” should be sufficient to satisfy your truth criteria.

    4. So, when is BoingBoing going to publish the article regarding Ms. Norton’s prosecution for violating the terms of the grand jury and defaming a federal prosecutor? Etc, etc…

      Is that a thing?

  2. “If I haven’t done anything wrong, I don’t have anything to hide. And if I don’t have anything to hide, I don’t have anything to fear from talking to them.”

    Ha ha ha … NO.

    Here is the thing that they don’t tell you in school. If the police show up, if federal agents show up, if gods forbid a prosecutor himself shows up and asks to talk to you about a case, or asks to talk to you and won’t explain why, there is always one and only one reason and that is that (a) they believe that a crime occurred and (b) they have already made up their mind that you did it.

    If you manage to say anything that they can’t twist to prove that you did it, they won’t even hear it. Everything else they will use against you, in ways that you cannot begin to imagine. Never, ever, ever, ever let them in without a warrant. Never, ever, ever answer a single question. ESPECIALLY if you’re innocent. Because once you’ve let them in, once you’ve consented to an interview, once you’ve consented to any kind of a search, once you’ve said anything to them beyond name, address, date of birth, and “I want a lawyer,” if you weren’t guilty before, you’re “guilty” now.

      1. I used to think so, too, but, really, not so much. To paraphrase something Robert Anton Wilson said about a different agency, if Jesus and the Twelve Apostles, or any other group of perfect saints you can name or imagine, were to replace the existing federal prosecutors, /and weren’t allowed to change the rules,/ the result would still be monstrous.

        As best as I can tell, from endless arguments about this with cops, lawyers, and (online) the occasional prosecutor, here are things that district attorneys “know:”

        1) If they can’t close cases fast enough, they will be replaced by someone else who can, and that person will be even worse than they are.

        2) Most of the time, an experienced detective or an experienced prosecutor can tell what crime has been committed and who the likely suspect is.

        3) It doesn’t even matter all that much if they’re wrong. The person they railroaded was probably guilty of something just as bad that they got away with and should have gone to jail for that; the person who got away will get busted (or railroaded) for something else eventually.

        4) What really matters is that the voters see that crimes are punished, and that potential criminals fear that they won’t get away with it. The rest is all petty and unimportant details.

        All four of those beliefs are wrong, but in particular, it’s #2 on that list that’s the real killer, because confirmation bias is one heck of a drug, man. Confirmation bias is powerfully addictive, it’s really, really hard to kick, and it is an extremely powerful hallucinogen. When you’re under the influence of confirmation bias, you literally cannot see or hear any evidence that you’re wrong, and you hallucinate all kinds of evidence that you’re right.

    1. Good advice. The interesting thing is, there’s almost a inverse bell curve relationship between the amount of financial and social capital one has and this advice being ground into one’s head from adolescence onward. Middle-class people are especially screwed by the dynamic when they attract the attention of the Eye of Sauron.

      It’s a failure of civic education, to be sure. But it’s also something deeper, a failure to understand that when one is dealing with the likes of Steve Heymann or Scott Garland or Carmen Ortiz one is no longer dealing with human beings but with extrusions of a system that will, I sh*t thee not, ruin you if you get on its bad side (and let me tell you, I can think of few more effective ways Swartz could have found himself there than by courageously liberating those PACER documents).

      In these situations, as any competent criminal defence attorney will tell you, the authorities are not your friends and are not “just people you can reason with.” They are not looking out for your best interests. They don’t care that you’re a nice, educated middle-class person — if anything that whets the appetites of the bullies attracted to the job. If you’re in that kind of interview with the authorities, whether it’s a deputy in rural Mississippi or a prosecutor in NYC, you’re simply something to be squeezed and tricked with ruses until they get information they can use.

      None of this is to say that Norton is to blame for what happened to her. She’s done people, especially the kind of people who read BoingBoing, a great service by writing this article.

      1. You are correct. In reading Quinn’s story, I think the “crime” that really got the government on a hell bent crusade to destroy Aaron was disrespecting Steve by not taking his “generous” first offer. I don’t think for a minute that his ego knows any bounds. That is evidenced by the small man big ego move of gathering the group to meet with and showing up a few minutes later.

      2. I almost entirely agree, but I have one nitpick. “Never attribute to malice what can be adequately explained by stupidity.” It’s not quite that the fact that you’re a nice, middle class person brings out the bully in them. It’s more like the fact that you’re a nice, middle class person who (they sincerely believe) committed a crime that offends them the most, because you’ve Let Down the Side, because they feel like as a nice, middle class person, you have no plausible excuse for what (they think) you did. And (they think) as a nice, middle class person who has no plausible excuse for what you did, you deserve no mercy.

        1. Do you really believe all of the prosecutions are valid? Do you really believe that if a person of innocent of a specific crime that they are guilty of another crime? Either you inhabit or very narrow world or you hang-out with questionable people. Everyone that is in jail or even charged with a crime, is not guilty of a crime…at the present, in the past and perhaps not the future. How/why can you engage in such minimalist thinking?

          1. Valid? No. Devoid of malicious intent? Usually. I think most prosecutors really do think that they got the right person, that they know what happened, and that they are doing what they think to be the best thing. What’s wrong with the system is not that individual district attorneys are monsters; what’s wrong is that our standard of proof is monstrously wrong.

          2. I guess all the cases where irrefutable evidence later concludes that the accused was in fact innocent and said “non-malicious” prosecutor(s) refuse to clear the record, what kind of “Hail Mary” do you give prosecutors in these cases? When police officers, prosecutors, et al, are able to “lie” to ensure arrests and in turn convictions  without the possibility of censure, there is a lot wrong with the system.
            If you look at our society and its predilection for “Reality (train wreck) TV and the common “in-your-face” meanness in every area our of society, and to believe that our system does not support a healthy number of maliciously inclined prosecutors is naive. When number of convictions (think of all the charges filed against an individual to ensure that something sticks)  supersedes rationality and the reality that over 90% of cases filed are plea-bargained and the ones that do decide to fight in court are penalized for exercising their rights, your, what appears to be semi-informed  argument pales against the reality of far too many people.

          3. Have you actually read his comments in this thread? Because you’re completely mischaracterizing them.

  3. That’s why for a long time it has become so meaningless and stale when people complain about minor items e.g. Rodman visiting North Korea.

    The US has so much cleaning up to do in its own backyard. A moral high ground simply does not exist anymore.
    Need an example? The only person in jail for the torture program under Bush is the one who leaked it.
    That makes the US a torturing nation. On par with Saudi Arabia Iran among others. Congratulations.
    That stain will not be removed by electing Obama into office.

    Especially now that POTUS expanded the exemption from the rule of law to American citizens, simply by him giving an order, protected by secrecy laws.

  4. This should be required reading.
    People like to think the system is fair, and that there are rules to treat everyone fairly… sometimes to fairly they think.
    I think people need to understand how horribly broken the system that keeps them ‘safe’ has become, and how easily they could find themselves a target.

  5. I expect to see a few comments here to the effect that an ever-more massive body of federal law, whose parameters are defined by unelected, essentially lifetime civil servants, and which is devoted to micromanaging the details of Americans’ lives…..

    … nevertheless a good thing, and a sign of our advancement as a civilization, if only we can ensure that enforcement is carried out solely by virtuous, caring regulators and prosecutors who think just like we do.

    1. Well why don’t you write one then?
      The chances of someone else spontaneously coming up with your made-to-measure straw man are pretty slim.

      1.  Shit, man, there are federal regulations that most denizens of this board simply adore.  They just don’t like the regulations which are used to prosecute their friends and ideological soul mates.

        1. And this is a bad thing?

          Really, it’s OK to think that some laws/regulations are good, some bad. That’s called thinking, and it stands in opposition to blind adherence to authority.

        2. Yes, most people approve of some federal regulations but not others.

          You’re setting the bar pretty low if you qualify that as insight.

        3. Shit, man, there are federal regulations that most denizens of this board simply adore.

          Shit, dude, I adore child labor laws…  so what?

          Got any more false dilemmas you attribute to us denizens you’re fretting about?

          They just don’t like the regulations which are used to prosecute their friends and ideological soul mates.

          Please quit projecting.  Not everyone acts like conservatives who only seem to “come around” on issues only once it happens to them.

          Many other “regulations” can also prosecute you and other non-denizens of this board, but I care anyway.  And, I do this even though I suspect you’re not my ideological soul mate.  But, I do hope you’ll be my friend.  Will you be my friend, class_enemy? I want you to be my friend.

  6. In the immortal words of Charles Stross.

    “If you’ve done nothing wrong you have nothing to be afraid of, comrade.”

    1. In theory, one of the most widespread religions in the country is supposed to be about someone who did nothing wrong, and smashed the moneylenders’ tables, and was tortured to death for it, and came back.

      Some conclude that if you are doing the right thing, and helping people, and opposing power and abuses of power, you might get railroaded for it.

      Some others seem to conclude that if no one is tortured to death, there’s only justice, but if someone, even an innocent, is tortured to death, then there’s justice.

        1. Yes, but I was talking about penal atonement bloodthirstiness theology and the resulting politics.

          Also, urgh. Half the time people write about empathy, they mean compassion, the other half they mean mind-reading.

          And when people describe autistic people’s difficulties with mind reading and with being mind misread as a lack of empathy, a lot of people assume that means a lack of compassion, and then show a lack of compassion towards us: A world with torture camps for autistic kids and no place for autistic adults, and with so much dehumanization, and which discusses ‘cures’ while dismissing our concerns.

  7. The article makes me think that the only way to get through something like that, even just a questioning, is to set some rules about it for yourself beforehand.  Such as, “even though it’ll be costly, find SOME way to hire a lawyer, if only as a buffer to their psychological attack.”  Or, “I will set some personal boundary rules.  Do not allow them to loom over me or use intimidating body positioning, and be aware of it, and remind them of it every single time it happens and DISALLOW it as part of the question-answer session.”  “I will write down my needs, such as a break every 45 minutes, water, food, etc., and not deviate from those needs.”  Etc.  I’m no expert, but this is what springs to mind.

    1. It’s hard to prepare rules for something you know nothing about. Why would you want to prepare for a prosecutor yelling at you? Civil servants are not supposed to yell at people; people in offices are not supposed to yell, period, especially so if they represent the State. This is the Code Of Life, this is what you’ve experienced for 20 or 30 years, why would you prepare for anything outside of it? You might as well prepare to play the SuperBowl in your backyard, or to have the Queen of England for supper. A prosecutor is not an overworked, paranoid policeman who’ll beat you senseless “just in case”; you expect a fine intellect and maybe a political mindset, not a street thug. And that’s why people like Heymann are successful: with their casual abuse of law and disregard for common decency, they throw others off-balance enough to get their wins.

      1. A prosecutor is paid to bring home the wins. People like Heymann are doing their jobs – bringing home the wins. It is foolish to expect anything else.

        That is why disclosures like Norton’s are important – they reveal that the Code of Life that you think you have experienced for decades is, in fact, a delusion. That the real proceedings in the legal system follow a different code entirely.

        1. A prosecutor is paid to bring home the wins. People like Heymann are doing their jobs – bringing home the wins. It is foolish to expect anything else.

          No, no, no.

          The American Bar Association is ludicrously clear on this subject. Here’s Standard 3- 1.2 The Function of the Prosecutor in full:

          (a) The office of prosecutor is charged with responsibility for prosecutions in its jurisdiction.

          (b) The prosecutor is an administrator of justice, an advocate, and an officer of the court; the prosecutor must exercise sound discretion in the performance of his or her functions.

          (c) The duty of the prosecutor is to seek justice, not merely to convict.

          (d) It is an important function of the prosecutor to seek to reform and improve the administration of criminal justice. When inadequacies or injustices in the substantive or procedural law come to the prosecutor’s attention, he or she should stimulate efforts for remedial action.

          (e) It is the duty of the prosecutor to know and be guided by the standards of professional conduct as defined by applicable professional traditions, ethical codes, and law in the prosecutor’s jurisdiction. The prosecutor should make use of the guidance afforded by an advisory council of the kind described in standard 4-1.5.

          1. Reality is ludicrously clear on this subject as well, and there seems to be some discrepancy.

          2. All the more reason to point out that what is actually required of prosecutors by their professional body is not the same as the bastard offspring of a half-remembered snippet of Law & Order and the Nuremberg defense.

          3. “What you plan and what happens ain’t ever been exactly similar.”

            A prosecutor who violates these standards will suffer no punishment for it; at most, some liberal will write a disapproving editorial that nobody (who matters) will read.

            A prosecutor who upholds these standards will be fired for losing too many cases or for going over budget.

            With the incentives stacked that hard against that statement of principles, it might as well be written on flash paper. Or toilet paper.

      2. or to have the Queen of England for supper. 

        I think I’d make chicken fingers and fries for her. That way it’d be similar to fish and chips, but not exactly the same. And if she didn’t want chicken fingers, she could just eat the fries. Plus I’ve got some flavoured antacids that could come in handy with her stomach problems.

    2. You can’t set rules for the cop who’s questioning you. You only get to beg him not to bring out the rubber hoses. (Or nowadays, I suppose, the waterboard. We’ve established that waterboarding suspects is lawful.)

      The only way to get through something like that is not to get into it in the first place. Our society today demands absolute conformity – if you are different from your neighbours in any way that attracts notice, you are at risk. So blend in the crowd. Watch lots of television. Drink beer. Turn your mind off.

      In fact, attracting notice is widely seen as criminal in itself. After all, if law enforcement have to spend so much of the time investigating ‘innocent’ but unusual subjects, it diverts their time and resources away from catching the real evildoers. In that way, ‘acting suspicious’ is the moral equivalent of ‘turning in a false alarm,’ and, in the eyes of the authoritarians, is equally culpable.

      The next step will be to view the failure to give sufficient public support to such behaviour as culpable – to require not only that we submit to the overlords, but praise them and work to perpetuate the system in which they operate.

      And I don’t see a way out. I suspect that constitutional government is a failed experiment.

      1. I find myself disagreeing with all of these responses.  By the logic in them, why would anyone learn self-defense?  Why would anyone learn to be assertive?  Why would anyone hire a lawyer?   I, personally, would recognize aggression directed at me and stand my ground.  I’d hire a lawyer.  I’d make my position known, and guard my personal space.  I would assert my rights and keep asserting them. As long as it takes.

        1. I would assert my rights and keep asserting them.

          Maybe. Or maybe you’d fold when the prosecutor looked at you funny. Have you been there to find out?

      2.  Realistically, you can say “Abide by these conditions or I am not answering any more questions without a lawyer present.”  But even more realistically you should skip that step and just have your lawyer present.

        1. That’s true.  By all rights, Quinn had her lawyers present at every encounter after the first one with the Secret Service.  Now, why the Secret Service was involved is a strange matter, but in any event, Quinn apparently BEHAVED correctly.  But her lawyers had no fight in them.  They were shitty lawyers for this case.  They played nice with a tiger who only wanted blood and was happy to eat girls, boys, lawyers and anyone else in the room.  So, I stand by my personal credo to recognize aggression directed at me and reject it by whatever means available.

          1. Quinn was a terrible client.  She didn’t stop asking Aaron about relevant issues.  She speaks all throughout her narrative of concealing the whole truth which is a big ole can of hell no.  She didn’t listen to any of her lawyer’s advice, thinking that it wasn’t all that serious a matter.  This is shit that will get your client imprisoned.  Publishing this piece in the first place is a pile of crap that could be used against her were the case still ongoing.  At some point, if you’re properly representing your client, you’ve got to consider less about Aaron’s fate and do anything you can to keep your own client out of jail, because she can’t stop running her mouth.

        1.  Gawd, I waded into that piece too, and I agree.
          The dude’s writing style is so whacked-out cutsie that any possibility of communicating his idea is lost.

  8. I am losing my faith in this country.  Nope, actually, it’s gone.  There is no hope.  Freedom is smashed, ignorance and gun brandishing has gone wild.

    1.  Is there any nation that’s better?  That’s not a rhetorical question, it’s a serious inquiry.   

      Next question: Is there any nation that’s better that doesn’t set nearly insurmountable legal and/or financial roadblocks before potential immigrants? 

  9. Speaking as someone who has faced off against a few federal prosecutors in court (only a few, though) and taken a law school class form three of them, one of which as a United States Attorney; I have to say that there are points on both sides.

    On one hand, (1) the deck is definitely stacked in favor of the prosecutor, (2) the specifics of this case are a horrible example of an overzealous prosecutor failing to do a reality check and whom should be removed from duty, and (3) the united states has too many crime to keep track off, to the point of possibly needing to do away with the “ignorance of the law is not a defense” policy.

    On the other hand, statements like “97% of the time, you will be coerced into prison without even getting a chance to make a defense (the coercion relies on threats of decade upon decade of prison and bankruptcy for you and all you love should you try to fight)…” overstates things by a wide mile.

    In my experience, the vast majority of people who plead guilty did, in fact, violate the law.

    That said, the real problem is not with the # or % of guilty pleas, it is with the unjustified piling on by the United States Attorneys (USAs). I have seen it a hundred times:

    To use a bit of a hyperbolic example, imagine you are driving 67 in a 65 MPH zone in a federal park and, based on this evidence, the prosecutor charges you with;

    (1) speeding,
    (2) unsafe operation of a motor vehicle,
    (3) reckless driving,
    (4) some obscure and outdated federal park regulation that forbids the use of vehicles with engines containing more than two cylinders for concerns of frightening the moose;
    (5) violation of the protected species act because the feds found a squished insect on your windshield that is a protected species, and
    (6) murder.

    Actually, this is not very far from the reality of how it goes down. USA’s can throw any charge they want at you, knowing that 99% of them penalties represented in their charging documented are bogus and that they will drop them. So you may be facing 167 years and $1,000,000 in fines, but they know that all they can get you on is a $50 speeding ticket. All a defendant hears is “167 years….one MEELION dollars…” and they fold, despite best advice from counsel. This is because, as defense attorneys we cannot guarantee a result a trial. We are duty bound to inform our clients that nothing is 100% at trial. You get a crazy judge or a conservative jury that doesn’t like the look of you…and you really could get convicted of something that really stretches the definitions of terms in the statute you are convicted under.

    The cost for the feds is in the startup cost of the investigation and deciding to charge someone. Once they have decided to charge you, it costs them NOTHING to add on as many charges as they can think of. There is, essentially, no penalty for charging a defendant for something insane with the plans of dropping the charge before you go to trial.

    My proposal for evening out the system is that for every charge dropped or found not guilty of during trial, you take the max penalty and subtract it from all of the penalties for the crimes you are convicted of. If the result was sufficiently negative, you don’t do any time or pay any fine. If it was overly negative, the feds pay your attorney’s fees and you for your time and distress. this would cut out the over-charging immediately and reduce the time people spend in prison. being convicted of even one felony is enough to ruin someone’s life. Let’s focus on the big issues and stop giving the feds carte blanche in the charging and threatening department.

    1.  That’s a great response.  But what should a defendant do?  How should a defendant behave?  Also, what about prior to even becoming a defendant, just a questionee…  what do you do & not do? how do you behave? 

      1. For starters, don’t talk to the police or prosecutors until you talk to your own lawyer.

        It’s not a perfect plan — as Quinn Norton’s profound regret about her lawyer-assisted dealings with the prosecutor indicates — but it’s miles and miles better than just winging it by yourself.

        [IANAL.  Talk to your lawyer if you need legal advice.  Seriously.]

        1. You are correct.  Quinn got crappy lawyers with no willingness to fight back.  That’s a travesty.  But at least she did consult with them. 

  10. Quinn Norton’s account is a moving and insightful personal memoir that reveals the kind of trauma that has come to be known as Legal Abuse Syndrome.

    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 Legal Abuse Syndrome.

    The prosecution of Aaron Swartz is yet another routine travesty of justice revealing once again the epic malfunction of our nation’s abusively oppressive system of justice.

  11. This young woman’s pain is palpable. Her ability, and yes I am aware that she is a journalist, a damn good one that stands out from the pack in today’s media world, but she is incredibly talented.
    I think the system as we know does not change because “average” Americans are just too tired trying stay afloat while mired in fear,  and can’t even begin to think about how to change the “Just Us” system.

  12. Antinous/Moderator.
    Yes, I read J. Brad Hicks response to my comment…and I read it several more since your reply to me. I addressed his position on whether some prosecutors have “malicious intent” in their prosecutions. Hicks’ believes most are just “doing their job”. I believe that some prosecutors have malicious intent in their prosecutions. So, if I have missed his intent, you as the moderator have interpreted something more than he gave in his direct response to me.

  13. This article was emotionally difficult to read. I’ve been exposed to more hamartia and pain than I expected today. I need to sit down.

  14. This incident, in this day and age, is what will change the attitudes of American society towards their government in the worst way possible.  
    Due to the internet, many people will hear of this and consider “what if that had been me instead? Where would I be?”

    When I see SWAT teams and military-grade gear as standard props in American entertainment, the inclusion of SWAT teams, tactics and operations as part of the normal part of many local jurisdictions in America and camouflage-style clothing as a fashion, our society is guided not by our angels but demons and our nightmares and few people are attempting to awaken from this sleeping stupor.

  15. I’ve abandoned any hope that there is justice to be found in the justice department.

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