The Justice Department's pursuit of the 26-year-old internet activist for a victimless crime points to an ugly truth about prosecutorial abuse.
Federal prosecutors wanted to make an example of Aaron Swartz and they succeeded. Their wildly disproportionate treatment of his victimless trespasses exemplified the Justice Department's disregard for fairness, decency, and the fundamental rights of the citizens it's supposed to serve. Swartz's prosecution was notable not because of its cruel over-zealousness, which is horribly routine, but because it involved a gifted, idealistic, emotionally vulnerable defendant, with a sophisticated and relatively powerful constituency that has the means to make itself heard.
He was not the first person to hang himself in the wake of abusive, even sadistic federal prosecution, and he may not be the last. (You can read about the case of the "posthumously vindicated" Dr. Peter Gleason here.) But Swartz's suicide may be the first to generate widespread sorrow and outrage over common prosecutorial tactics that put ordinary as well as extraordinary citizens at risk. The increasingly voluminous federal criminal code, the vagueness of its individual offenses (numbering about 4,500 in 2007), and its harsh mandatory minimum sentences -- combined with failures of Justice Department leadership -- regularly expose law-abiding Americans to prosecution for activities they have no reason to consider illegal.