Alleged eBay hacker dismisses lawyer

In a strange turn to his case, 22-year-old Jerome Heckenkamp gains permission from a San Jose, Calif., judge to represent himself.

Robert Lemos Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Robert Lemos
covers viruses, worms and other security threats.
Robert Lemos
3 min read
SAN JOSE, Calif.--A 22-year-old former Los Alamos National Laboratory worker accused of breaking into the computers of eBay, Exodus Communications and several other companies successfully dismissed his lawyer on Wednesday, despite a federal judge's repeated urgings that he reconsider.

In a strange twist to the year-old case, Jerome T. Heckenkamp filed last week to put himself back into custody, so that a friend who posted his $50,000 bail would no longer be responsible for Heckenkamp's conduct. In addition, Heckenkamp asked the U.S. Court for the Northern District of California to allow him to dismiss his attorney, noted cyberlawyer Jennifer Granick, and represent himself.

"This is my case and I have to do what I can to win," he told U.S. District Court Judge Patricia V. Trumbull. "I think this is the best way to do that."

Heckenkamp, who graduated from the University of Wisconsin at the age of 18, will now have to cram for the most important test of his life: defending himself against federal charges of computer intrusion, interfering with communications, and tampering with a witness.

But the judge, his former attorney and the prosecutor all seem to think his chances of passing that test are slim.

After asking a battery of questions necessary for such a motion, Judge Trumbull said she had no choice but to allow him to waive his right to an attorney, but she didn't soften her opinion of his chances on his own.

"I don't think you have the foggiest idea what you are doing," Trumbull told Heckenkamp, after repeatedly advising him that "it's not in your best interest to do this."

Granick, the clinical director of Stanford University's Center for Internet and Society, told Trumbull that she had advised her client not to represent himself. She would not comment on the matter to the media, citing attorney-client privilege. The judge held a 10-minute closed-door session to confer with both Granick and Heckenkamp.

Unable to dissuade him after a 75-minute proceeding, Judge Trumbull let Heckenkamp waive his right to an attorney.

"You are a bright young man," Trumbull said. "You have a lot of education, and you have no idea what to do in a courtroom."

Heckenkamp has been charged with seven counts of accessing computers without authorization and eight counts of intercepting computer communications. The charges stem from intrusions into the networks at eBay, Exodus, Juniper, Lycos, E*Trade and Cygnus throughout 1999, according to an indictment filed in December 2000.

In addition to the 15 charges, the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Northern District of California charged Heckenkamp with witness tampering. Heckenkamp has also been indicted by the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of California in San Diego on 10 additional charges of computer intrusion.

Standing still, his head slightly bowed, Heckenkamp answered questions regarding his health, whether he had been coerced into dismissing his attorney, and whether he understood criminal procedures and federal rules of evidence.

"A little," he answered to the last two questions. When the judge pressed him as to what that meant, he haltingly admitted his lack of knowledge and then answered, "Not really."

More than a dozen times, the judge advised him against representing himself and added that she was more than willing to give Heckenkamp more time to consider his decision or to seek additional legal opinions on the matter.

Heckenkamp refused to be swayed, however. "I don't think a court-appointed lawyer would help me," he said.

In the only hint so far as to why he has sought to dismiss his lawyer, the 22-year-old former security professional, dressed in the orange and gray prison uniform of Santa Clara County Jail, told Judge Trumbull, "My counsel may be more suited to a plea bargain and not to a trial."

He added that he had already refused three different attempts at plea bargaining and isn't interested in settling with government prosecutors.

Heckenkamp will return to court late Wednesday afternoon to attempt to free himself from custody, so that he can prepare his own case. He also will have to file a similar motion in San Diego court to dismiss Granick from representing him in that case.