Prosecutors help organize victims' brigade in Apple battle

Tue Feb 23, 2016 4:56pm EST
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By Dan Levine and Rory Carroll

(Reuters) - Prosecutors took unusual steps in enlisting victims of the San Bernardino attack in the government's heated battle with Apple Inc(AAPL.O: Quote) over access to an iPhone belonging to one of the shooters, according to people involved in the effort and legal experts.

Family members of at least two victims will join a legal brief to be filed next week urging Apple to help the government unlock the phone, they told Reuters on Monday. The lawyer representing them, former federal judge Stephen Larson, said he was brought into the case by Eileen Decker, the U.S. Attorney in Los Angeles, who personally asked him if he was interested in representing the victims.

San Bernardino County prosecutors subsequently contacted at least one victim's husband about joining in the case.

The FBI wants Apple's help to access shooter Syed Rizwan Farook's phone by disabling its passcode protections. The company argues that such a move would set a dangerous precedent and threaten customer security.

Several former federal prosecutors and defense lawyers said they had never encountered a situation in which the Justice Department asked a particular lawyer to represent victims. None suggested that the action was inappropriate, though they did point out that it could become complicated if the interests of the government and the victims were to diverge.

Larson acknowledged that the move was "unprecedented" in his experience, but said that the refusal of a company like Apple to comply with a court order was also very unusual.

"Apple has close to unlimited resources to litigate this thing," Larson said. "It is hardly a surprise the U.S. Attorney wants to make sure victims have someone looking after them."

The entry of victims into the case gives the Justice Department a powerful and sympathetic ally, with a clear and compelling interest in the case. Supporters of the company, meanwhile, suggest the government's actions are as much a bid to alter the political landscape around encryption as they are a quest for legal remedies in the case at hand.   Continued...

Apple logos are seen on boxes in a shop in Munich downtown, Germany, January 27, 2016.  REUTERS/Michaela Rehle