internet activist commits suicide two months before trial on criminal charges

by Tim Phillips

Internet activist Aaron Swartz committed suicide yesterday in New York. After one of his many projects drew the ire of the Department of Justice, he was indicted on federal charges in July 2011 for downloading almost the entire JSTOR library of academic articles. His hope was to provide free access to the articles to the general public.

Federal prosecutors knew JSTOR, a nonprofit, wasn’t seeking to have Swartz convicted. Yet prosecutors charged Swartz regardless, with offenses that carried potential penalties of up to 35 years in prison and $1 million in fines. Today’s New York Times article explains:

Mr. Swartz turned over his hard drives with 4.8 million documents, and JSTOR declined to pursue the case. But Carmen M. Ortiz, a United States attorney, pressed on…

The expected post-trial sentence is only imposed in a few percent of cases, and Swartz certainly struggled with depression and suicidal thoughts independent of the charges. According to the official statement from Swartz’s family and partner, however, his death was caused in part by the prosecution:

Aaron’s death is not simply a personal tragedy. It is the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach. Decisions made by officials in the Massachusetts U.S. Attorney’s office … contributed to his death. The US Attorney’s office pursued an exceptionally harsh array of charges, carrying potentially over 30 years in prison, to punish an alleged crime that had no victims.