As family, friends and admirers mourn the death of Internet hacker-turned-activist Aaron Swartz, his lawyers have been speaking out about their negotiations with the Justice Department and MIT. When one former lawyer told prosecutors that Swartz might kill himself, "Their response was, 'Put him in jail. He’ll be safe there.'" Andy Good explained, "I’m not saying they made Aaron kill himself. Aaron might have done this anyway. I’m saying they were aware of the risk, and they were heedless.”
Swartz, who was 14 when he co-authored RSS 1.0 authentication and later help build Reddit, was found dead in his Crown Heights apartment last Friday morning, and the ME's office ruled the 26-year-old's death a suicide by hanging. His family blamed his death on Justice Department and MIT, for relentlessly pursuing charges against Swartz for downloading 4.8 million academic journals from JSTOR by sneaking into a network closet at MIT and tapping into the network, "Aaron’s death is not simply a personal tragedy. It is the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach."
Many have demanded that U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz resign, but her husband complained about the criticism his wife received by Tweeting, "Truly incredible that in their own son's obit they blame others for his death and make no mention of the 6 month offer." The Guardian reports that Tom Dolan then deleted his account.
Swartz and his lawyers were not looking for a free pass. They had offered to accept a deferred prosecution or probation, so that if Swartz pulled a stunt like that again, he would end up in prison.
Marty Weinberg, who took the case over from [initial lawyer Andy] Good, said he nearly negotiated a plea bargain in which Swartz would not serve any time. He said JSTOR signed off on it, but MIT would not.
“There were subsets of the MIT community who were profoundly in support of Aaron,” Weinberg said. That support did not override institutional interests.
Elliot Peters, the San Francisco lawyer who took the case over from Weinberg last fall, could not persuade prosecutors to drop their demand that Swartz plead guilty to 13 felonies and spend six months in prison. Peters was preparing to go to trial and was confident of prevailing.
However, Peters said, “There was such rigidity with the people we were dealing with. I couldn’t find anyone in that office to talk about proportionality and humanity. It was driven by a desire to turn this into a significant case, so that some prosecutor could put it in his portfolio."
Harvard professor Lawrence Lessig, a friend of Swartz's, characterized the prosecution's efforts as "bullying" and Alex Stamos, an Internet expert who was going to testify for Swartz, told the Post, "I know a criminal hack when I see it, and Aaron did not hack into that system. He accessed a system that MIT, by its own admission, intentionally made available to those connected with the school. You could download as much as you wanted."