Was Aaron Swartz Really ‘Killed by the Government’?

No, but prosecutors did go too far in pressing felony charges

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Michael Francis McElroy / ZUMA Press

Aaron Swartz in Miami, Jan. 30, 2009.

At the funeral of Aaron Swartz, the 26-year-old Internet freedom crusader, Swartz’s father had a blunt message. Aaron — who committed suicide last week while being prosecuted for hacking — “was killed by the government,” he declared. The elder Swartz fanned the flames of a growing debate: Did federal prosecutors go too far in pursuing Swartz on serious felony charges, and are they in part responsible for his death?

(MORE: Aaron Swartz, Tech Prodigy and Internet Activist, Is Dead at 26)

Swartz, a computer prodigy, helped create Reddit but was perhaps best known as a freedom-of-information activist. In addition to campaigning against overly punitive copyright laws, he allegedly linked his laptop to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s computer system to download millions of articles from JSTOR, a paid-subscription database of academic articles. (MIT was a subscriber to JSTOR, but Swartz was not an authorized user.) Federal prosecutors in Boston charged Swartz with 13 felony counts that could have sent him to prison for more than 30 years.

Since Swartz’s death — he was found hanged in his home in Brooklyn — his family, friends and allies in the information-freedom movement have put much of the blame on federal prosecutors. Swartz’s family said in a statement on an online memorial site that his death is “the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach.” In particular, they charge that the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Massachusetts contributed to Swartz’s death by choosing to pursue “a harsh array of charges … to punish an alleged crime that had no victims.”

(MORE: Aaron Swartz’s Suicide Prompts MIT Soul-Searching)

U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz pushed back Wednesday, saying that her prosecutors have a duty of “protecting the use of computers and the Internet” and that they had never intended to see the maximum sentence of 30 years given. In fact, they had offered Swartz a plea-bargain deal that would have put him in prison for only a few months — a deal he had rejected. In a blog post titled “Prosecutor as Bully,” Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig — a friend and legal adviser to Swartz — said that Swartz balked at being labeled a “felon” and after 18 months of negotiations, that was “what he was not willing to accept.”

Swartz’s case may not be as black-and-white as his loved ones suggest; no one person or entity “killed” Swartz. Suicide is caused by mental illness. But in bringing such tough charges against him, prosecutors do seem to have wrongly used their discretion. There is still more to be learned about how the Boston U.S. Attorney’s office made the choices it did, and Representative Darrell Issa, chairman of the House Oversight Committee, has announced that his committee is investigating. Swartz’s actions were not above reproach. He appears to have been in the middle of a plan to “liberate” and disseminate privately owned articles. But the offense he was engaged in was not crime of violence or greed. It seems, rather, to have been an act of civil disobedience, or lawbreaking in the service of Swartz’s (and many people’s) idea of a more just world. That does not mean that Swartz had a right to do what he did or not to be punished. But his motives should have been an important part of the government’s calculus.

(MORE: Aaron Swartz’s Suicide Triggers Response from U.S. Lawmakers)

Prosecutors considering what charges to bring must think seriously about deterrence: how to prevent this defendant and others from committing similar crimes in the future. In Swartz’s case, that could likely have been accomplished with far less firepower. In Swartz’s case, a misdemeanor conviction and a stern warning that the next infraction would result in a felony charge would have likely put him on a straight path.

This week, a member of Congress proposed a bill called Aaron’s Law that would revise the computer fraud statute he was charged under. The law does need changing, but that alone will not solve the problem. Swartz’s death should prompt soul-searching and brainstorming in the Department of Justice and in local prosecutors’ offices around the country about how to spot prosecutorial overzealousness — and how to make sure that in future cases the proposed punishment better fits the crime.

152 comments
DBirch
DBirch

 Aaron Swartz didn't take the plea deal because he did not think himself to be guilty.  We have a Constitution and Amendments that protect our citizens from unjust prosecution and punishment, despite what the mouth breathers who can only count to two think.  The basis of his actions was that most of the journal articles were based on research that was partially or completely funded by public monies and therefore the information belongs to the people and they should not be charged to access it.  There are innumerable instances where public money has financed research that resulted in the researcher or his organization making profits from the findings.  This is nothing more than another form of welfare if you want to take the Libertarian view of things.  

The fact is that this country would be a shell of itself if it were purely capitalistic and we cut off all of the "welfare" to farmers, ethanol producers, dairy producers, arms companies, banks, research groups, schools, welfare states that receive more Federal monies than they pay (those are mostly red states by the way), not to mention the infirm and poor and aged, and underprivileged.  Do you think we prosecute wars around the world because we are the good guys?  No, it's because we have an economy that is very dependent on the dollars generated by the military-industrial complex.  Do you think Cheney pressed for invading Iraq because Saddam Hussein was a threat to the US?  No, it was because his old company, Halliburton and their KBR division had sole source contracts with the US government to provide support for the military and I am sure he has been handsomely rewarded for murdering 4,000 Americans, Maiming another 25,000 and murdering over 100,000 Iraqis.

And please stop referring to this Hitler thing.  Hitler relaxed gun laws on three different occasions from the absolute ban that had been put in place by Kaiser Wilhelm after World War 1.  True he took the guns from the Jews but did that really make a difference?  I say no because due to the incessant propaganda by Wayne Lapierre, I mean Joseph Goebbels, he had the German people believing that Jews were the problem with German Society.  A few thousand Jews with guns against the Nazi SS would have been like one of our modern gun nuts with his gun safe full of "assault weapons" and a couple of pallets of 5.56 versus the US military and an AGM (that's air-to-ground-missile for all of you guys hiding behind your couches with your Armalites reading Captain America Comic Books).  

It's time for the adults in this country to come forward and set it back on a positive path into the future and Aaron Swartz was one of those adults who will be sorely missed because of a power hungry Federal prosecutor, her IBM executive vp husband and a greedy education system that has forgotten its place in society.

mattaz
mattaz

Whether he was a criminal or not. He was offered a plea deal that he did not take. I gurantee he did not take it because he has so much dirt and blood on the governments hands that if he were to kill himself, I believe from what I know of him he would have done it AFTER the trial. Its very easy to kill hourself in prison. Im pretty sure be stated if anything were to happen to him he has copies in the hands of other people. Im sorry I cant believe evefytbing I read. Ive seen the local media be fed BS Information to make the case as easy as possible for tbe police. I had police documenets in my hand from one of the parties involved and they never shared any of that with the media.We have been warned about our government getting out of control. When is too far? Nobody knows because we are being treated like a frog in a pot of water with the heat turned on high and before the frog realizes it, hes all ready dead.Our government is totally off course from or founding fathers ideals tbat its absurd. Does anyone realize that like Adolph Hitler did , the US is disarming its people. You hear about the terrible reporting and possible exageration of the Sandy Hook shooting but hear nothing about the Austin guy who killed one person then went to shoot up a movie theater I belive, but he got shot before he could kill anyone else. We dont hear stories like tbat do we? Our 2nd ammendment is there to protect us from an out of control government.

If everybody was armed you may have a clue wether Aron was killed or it was indeed suicide which does not fit his charecte or message he has

SuePeaseBanitt
SuePeaseBanitt

Correction TIME:  Suicide is not always caused by mental illness. It can also be caused by acute despair. I'm not convinced that this young man killed himself.  Seems like some very powerful people dropped significant coin to catch him. These same folks are not above murder on occasion - whether physically or psychologically.  It matters not to them. I'm sad Aaron is gone. We need more like him.

IskenderElRusi
IskenderElRusi

The arrogance and basic lack of human decency, on the part of Carmen Ortiz and her lackeys, are really stunning.  Aaron Swartz is not the only case her office mishandled: see Carmen Ortiz’s Sordid Rap Sheet, http://whowhatwhy.com/2013/01/17/carmen-ortizs-sordid-rap-sheet/

Petition the Obama administration to: Remove United States District Attorney Carmen Ortiz from office for overreach in the case of Aaron Swartz https://petitions.whitehouse.gov/petition/remove-united-states-district-attorney-carmen-ortiz-office-overreach-case-aaron-swartz/RQNrG1Ck

RoyLo
RoyLo

Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution:
Excessive bail, cruel punishment
Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.
-----------------------------------------------------------------------------
"Ortiz's office, as TechDirt reported, severely escalated the already-excessive four-felony-count indictment by adding nine new felony counts, each of which "carrie[d] the possibility of a fine and imprisonment of up to 10-20 years per felony", meaning "the sentence could conceivably total 50+ years and [a] fine in the area of $4 million." That meant, as Think Progress documented, that Swartz faced "a more severe prison term than killers, slave dealers and bank robbers"."

bibleverse1
bibleverse1

Aaron wanted to be a activist but did was not willing to accept the consequences. King, Ghandi, Mandela were willing to break the law and accept the full penalty of their actions. 

twonay
twonay

Was Mr Swartz indiscriminately downloading all the JSTOR files or did he have a focus point in what he was copying?

twonay
twonay

If this was a suicide then why since he was such a good spokesperson did he not have a last word in a suicide note. This does not fit with the story. Certainly he would leave a note unless he was unable and why would that be. Considerable thought goes into knocking yourself off you would have plenty of time to think about what your last words would be. To say nothing is a sign of foul play in his case. No?

PaulS
PaulS

Suicide isn't caused be mental illness. Plenty of people who are not mentally ill take their own lives. But it's been reported that he had struggled with depression for years, and depression can affect many aspects of decisionmaking. It's unfortunate that research papers are owned by private parties, but they are.

crowbb
crowbb

We are going to see more and more of this.  We are all living in a time where we coddle children to the point of injuring them.  They have never been allowed to fail or hurt themselves, then when eventually exposed to the real world, they cannot handle it.  He was a criminal plain an simple.  Just because it was a white collar crime doesn't make it any less a crime.

thewags.05
thewags.05

He was a criminal and like all criminal deserved to be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.  Just because other criminals are let off on lesser charges doesn't mean he should have been.  He personally stole my IP, even if I sold my right away to another company what he did was a criminal act.

David_Booth
David_Booth

1. Aaron Swartz did NOT necessarily break the law.  He did something that JSTOR did not want him to do, yes -- and he knew it -- but that is NOT necessarily a crime.  And in the end, JSTOR (the supposed victim) decided that Aaron should NOT be prosecuted.  In fact, they recently decided took significant steps toward providing open access to their journal articles:
http://www.technologyreview.com/news/426609/research-archive-jstor-moves-toward-open-access/
Please read more background before assuming that Aaron was guilty:
http://unhandled.com/2013/01/12/the-truth-about-aaron-swartzs-crime/

2. Even if Aaron had been found guilty of all charges, the issue here is that the prosecutor's behaviour was FAR out of proportion for the supposed harm that Aaron had caused (if any) or the threat to society that he represented.  That is NOT justice, that is abuse of power.  Prosecutors wield a huge stick, and they have a responsibility to use it appropriately.  Instead they relentlessly pressured Aaron with complex charges that, in the BEST case (if Aaron was found INNOCENT), would likely have cost him over $1 MILLION in legal fees plus much time and anguish, and in the worst case (if he was found guilty) could have cost him up to $4 million in fines and 30-50 years in prison:
http://www.techdirt.com/articles/20120917/17393320412/us-government-ups-felony-count-jstoraaron-swartz-case-four-to-thirteen.shtml
All this for downloading academic journal articles from JSTOR, when JSTOR -- the supposed "victim" -- didn't even think Aaron should be prosecuted at all????  That is NOT how our legal system is supposed to operate.

3. Perhaps Aaron was too principled to accept a six month plea bargain and be branded a dangerous felon for the rest of his life when he knew that what he had done was NOT the heinous crime that the prosecutors viciously portrayed, and he chose the wrong way out of his dilemma.  Suicide in response to bullying has become a tragically familiar story in the past few years:
https://www.google.com/search?q=bullying+suicide&sa=Search&sitesearch=
A bully whose victim is driven to suicide is seldom the sole cause of the victim's death, and prosecutors Ortiz and Heymann certainly are not solely to blame for Aaron's suicide.  But they do bear responsibility for their own abuse of prosecutorial power, whether that abuse was the result of incompetence for their lack of judgement, indifference for placing their aspirations for professional advancement over true justice, or politically motivated malicious intent.  And they must be held accountable for that abuse.  It is worth noting that this is the SECOND suicide linked to Heymann's "dirty" prosecutorial tactics:
http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2262831/Revealed-Aaron-Swartz-prosecutor-drove-hacker-suicide-2008-named-cyber-crime-case.html

Aaron contributed far more to our society in his 26 years than most of us will in our entire lifetimes, and he was poised to contribute so much more.  He worked tirelessly and brilliantly to build a better Web, a better foundation for science and a fairer democracy based on open information.  His death is a loss to all of us who believe in truth and democratic principles.

For an excellent article by Harvard lawyer Lawrence Lessig, with more information about the case and the proposed "Aaron's Law", see:
http://www.nationaljournal.com/domesticpolicy/a-law-for-aaron-swartz-20130117

SkyFairlane
SkyFairlane

“that they had never intended to see the maximum sentence of 30 years given”

So the government’s goal was to intimidate Aaron—sort of like a bully.

Job well done.Your target/victim has killed himself in response to your actions.And the world has lost a genius.

Would that U.S. prosecutors would go after REAL criminals with the same zeal; we’d ALL be safer.But instead, I am now afraid of my own government.

Prasanth
Prasanth

"In Swartz’s case, a misdemeanor conviction and a stern warning that the next infraction would result in a felony charge would have likely put him on a straight path ", I don't understand what the author means here when he says "straight path". Look like the author has some how taken the role of a moral police ...



kay.sieverding
kay.sieverding

DOJ is just totally crooked.  I don't have a criminal record and wasn't accused of a federal offense but DOJ detained me for 5 months with no charge, no evidentiary hearing and no bail hearing. Then they said that that was legal.  I am also an MIT grad and I sued DOJ under the Privacy Act, which is supposed to control DOJ's use of computers.  DOJ pled that it can use the Prisoner Tracking System to imprison people who aren't criminally charged and that it can use the Joint Automated Booking System to put the records of people's fingerprints and photos into a national database even if they aren't an alleged criminal offender. 

DerekLogan
DerekLogan

We could make the argument that the establishment 'killed' such greats as computer engineer pioneer Alan Turning or comedian/activist Lennie Bruce, talented and brilliant people who died by their own hand after being prosecuted harshly by both the legal and public establishments for what they did or who they were. It's never cut and dry who should be more responsible for these tragic situations, but Schwartz fate is unfortunately not unique when individual idealism butts heads with an established political, legal and social system.

C_Ryback
C_Ryback

@twonay Hey, Einstein -- he felony broke-into MIT. Get a clue.

mrbomb13
mrbomb13

@PaulS

Actually, Cohen was right to make that statement.  According to the American Psychological Association (APA), "Suicide is the act of killing yourself, most often as a result of depression or other mental illness."  In the U.S. the APA's and the DSM Manual's definition take precedence over the World Health Organization (which is a global, non-nation specific entity).

So, while I don't agree with much of what Cohen wrote, at least he got the cause of suicide right.

Source:  http://www.apa.org/topics/suicide/index.aspx

David_Booth
David_Booth

@thewags.05No, he was charge but not convicted, and likely would have been found INNOCENT.  Please read more about it before assuming that he was guilty: http://unhandled.com/2013/01/12/the-truth-about-aaron-swartzs-crime/

There is a huge difference between doing something that someone else doesn't want you to do and breaking the law. I'm sure there are people who didn't want me to post this comment, but that does not make it illegal.

C_Ryback
C_Ryback

@David_Booth D, you burglarize a lot of buildings, you'll get your head shot off. Guaranteed.

Start thinking. Good luck. You are welcome.

thewags.05
thewags.05

@SkyFairlane Even if they were bullying him it doesn't make what he did right.  As an author of some of those articles I see him as a criminal.   How many of you can say the same thing?

C_Ryback
C_Ryback

@SkyFairlane Yeah, 49.6% of Americans feel the same way about OweBama (D) and his Chicago thugs. They're going to fight those neo-Commies, to the last.

Adam killed himself. That's on him, and no one else. OweBama's (D) thuggery is killing the spirits of many Americans. They aren't killing themselves -- they're buying more ammo. Because that's all the Chicago thugs (D) understand -- force.

thewags.05
thewags.05

@DerekLogan The alternative is don't break the law. Fight within the confine of the law.  There's no way around it he was a criminal who broke the law.  He was also suffering from depression, which is obviously the reason he killed himself.  He took the cowards way out.

David_Booth
David_Booth

@C_Ryback, No, Aaron did not break into MIT.  First, MIT is an open campus.  Second, neither trespassing nor breaking and entering were a part of the charges.

MatthewHale
MatthewHale

@C_Ryback 


Auto erotic asphyxiation, you mean? Dullard. 


Off you go now little man back to the shallow end of the gene pool from where you crawled. 



daena.vassar
daena.vassar

@C_Ryback @David_Booth 

Didn't some guys who "burglarized a lot of buildings" against the ruling British, bravely win us our freedom oh so long ago?  Bravery is after all a stand against smug naysayers such as you as well.

DerekLogan
DerekLogan

@thewags.05 @DerekLogan You're missing the point with those examples. Sometimes you end up breaking the law on technicalities that are beyond your control, as with Turning and his sexual orientation. Other times, you ask for mercy of the court, which is a legal right, while still honouring the spirit of the decision. In the case of Lennie Bruce, that was what he did but was still given some of the harshest penalties for obscenity charges at that time, eventually leading to his suicide (in fact, severely restricting him to stop doing what he loved to do was as much a psychological blow to him that pushed him over to suicide as it was for Turning to be restricted from that being allowed to follow on natural instincts stemming from his sexual orientation in which pushed him over the edge.) This is was likely happened to Schwartz. He accepted what he did was illegal but felt the felony charges and punishments were too harsh for the crimes, and felony would have restricted him from continuing to work in the computer sciences. Because computing science was such a huge part of his identity, restricting it was the psychological blow that pushed him over. His suicide wasn't a coward's way out, and people who have had someone close to them committed suicide will tear you several new ones for suggesting.cowardice. It was an act of desperate autonomy in the face of no other perceived options (if I can't control my life and be who I am allowed to be then I'll control how it ends kind of thinking). Finally, saying don't break the law, work inside doesn't necessarily break change. The roots to the Civil Rights movements was contingent on breaking certain aspects of state law to bring attention to their unfairness. In many cases, the legal system leaves few tools of resource to effectively fight, and so options to openly rebel from the outside are used. When you get down to it, the American Revolution could not have happened without fighting outside the confines of the law, and the risk was huge (in truth, the American colonies almost lost the war until the turning point in Valley Forge). There is not a lot you can dismiss easily into simple black and white camps; the particulars of this case are very complex. And like Turning and Bruce, the legal implications are lasting and will impact other cases of this nature in courts for decades to come.

C_Ryback
C_Ryback

@David_Booth

Dang, D, my lying eyes, seeing those photos of Aaron, running away from MIT cops. My lying eyes are no good.

Not.

News-flash, Junior -- feds can't charge without probable cause. They're smarter than you and me. Denying reality does not make it go away.

C_Ryback
C_Ryback

@daena.vassar @C_Ryback @David_Booth 

Hey, like the stupid Gannettoids in Westchester, why don't you post your address and a list of everything worth stealing, to let others (OweBama, Mao, Stalin, Ho) take them? Because that is what Mr. Swartz (RIP) did.

MatthewHale
MatthewHale

@C_Ryback @David_Booth @daena.vassar


Presumably you don't read anything much at all because you can't. Well, you can barely structure a proper, coherent sentence. I guess the television is much more your 'cup of tea'. 

MatthewHale
MatthewHale

@C_Ryback @David_Booth @thewags.05


Brilliant so presumably you have the evidence to support the veracity of that claim?


Oh no, be because there is none. Just the word of a bunch of well established pathalogical liars.