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 (Internet Archive Wayback Machine mirror)