J. D. Heyes
Jan 16, 2013
Many prosecutors and, in the case of Headline News’ Nancy Grace, former prosecutors, are of the mindset that if a suspect commits suicide they do so because they are guilty. Grace said as much following the suicide of one of her guests, Melinda Duckett, after the sensationalist host all but accused her of murdering her missing two-year-old son.
We may never know whether Duckett was guilty of anything, because she’s dead – thanks in large part to Grace’s made-for-television badgering. But that also means we may never learn anything about her missing son’s whereabouts, either.
Enter Aaron Swartz, the brilliant tech-savvy Internet activist and co-founder of a company that would eventually grow into social media site Reddit. Potentially facing 50 years behind bars for allegedly downloading more than four million academic journals from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Swartz hung himself in his apartment ahead of a pending court date. Now, we will never know of his guilt, his alleged motivations or what good he may have accomplished over the course of his life.
In the wake of his death, Swartz’s family and friends are now blaming federal prosecutors, for being overly aggressive, and MIT, for failing to vouch for Swartz. In a statement to the media, they claim the U.S. attorney’s office was pursuing an “exceptionally harsh array of charges” for an alleged crime that had no victims, while skewering MIT for abandoning Swartz and the school’s own “cherished principles.”
‘Boy genius’ bullied by feds
“Aaron’s death is not simply a personal tragedy,” wrote the family and his 26-year-old partner, Taren Stinebricker-Kaufman. “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 and MIT contributed to his death.”
In addition they wrote:
Aaron’s commitment to social justice was profound, and defined his life. He was instrumental to the defeat of an Internet censorship bill; he fought for a more democratic, open, and accountable political system; and he helped to create, build, and preserve a dizzying range of scholarly projects that extended the scope and accessibility of human knowledge. He used his prodigious skills as a programmer and technologist not to enrich himself but to make the Internet and the world a fairer, better place. His deeply humane writing touched minds and hearts across generations and continents. He earned the friendship of thousands and the respect and support of millions more.
Larry Lesig, a Harvard University professor, Internet law expert and friend of Swartz’s, also blamed the federal prosecutor, calling him a “bully” on his blog and writing that Swartz, who hinted previously at having a history of depression, had been “driven to the edge” by the government’s disproportionate and overly aggressive handling of his case.
50 years for hacking?
“Our government continued to push as if it had caught the 9/11 terrorists red-handed,” wrote Lessig.
“A kid genius. A soul, a conscience, the source of a question I have asked myself a million times: What would Aaron think? That person is gone today, driven to the edge by what a decent society would only call bullying. I get wrong. But I also get proportionality. And if you don’t get both, you don’t deserve to have the power of the United States government behind you,” he said.
Swartz, a gifted programmer, helped develop the RSS at age 14, and went on to help found Demand Progress [http://demandprogress.org/], a political action organization that campaigns against Internet censorship, reported Britain’s Daily Mail newspaper.
The Reddit co-founder was arrested in 2011 for allegedly downloading the academic journals from the JSTOR online journal archive, with the intent of distributing them free of charge via file-sharing sites. He was charged with 13 counts of felony hacking in September 2012.
Lessig and others were especially outraged by the amount of jail time prosecutors were seeking.
“50 years in jail, charges our government. Somehow, we need to get beyond the ‘I’m right so I’m right to nuke you’ ethics that dominates our time. That begins with one word: shame,” he wrote in his blog.
Like Grace, who adopted the mindset that guilt makes it okay to cajole and bully suspects, the prosecutor in Swartz’s case obviously felt the same way. It became not a matter of right or wrong, per se, or pursuing the government’s interest in this case, but seemed to become more about getting even with some activist with whom the government disagreed.
The real crime may be what led Swartz to take his own life
If the allegations against him were true, writes Peter Eckersley at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a day after Swartz’s death:
[T]he situation Aaron found himself in highlights the injustice of U.S. computer crime laws, and particularly their punishment regimes. Aaron’s act was undoubtedly political activism, and taking such an act in the physical world would, at most, have meant he faced light penalties akin to trespassing as part of a political protest. Because he used a computer, he instead faced long-term incarceration. This is a disparity that EFF has fought against for years. Yesterday, it had tragic consequences.
Zach Carter, Ryan Grimm, and Ryan J. Reilly provided even more insight into what appears to be a clear case of prosecutorial bullying. From the Huffington Post:
Swartz spent the last two years fighting federal hacking charges. In July 2011, prosecutor Scott Garland working under U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz, a politician with her eye on the governor’s mansion, charged Swartz with four counts of felony misconduct – charges that were deemed outrageous by internet experts who understood the case, and wholly unnecessary by the parties Swartz was accused of wronging. Swartz repeatedly sought to reduce the charges to a level below felony status, but prosecutors pressed on, adding additional charges so that by September 2012 Swartz faced 13 felony counts and up to half a century in prison.
In the end, federal prosecutors’ zealous pursuit of Swartz and unwillingness to negotiate on charges undoubtedly led him to choose death. They may not have physically strung him up by his neck, but they cannot credibly claim they had no role whatsoever in his death.
This article was posted: Wednesday, January 16, 2013 at 6:30 am