Aaron Swartz's Legal Troubles Were Getting Worse in the Days Before His Suicide

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Though mental health experts caution that there is rarely ever one lone reason for suicide, information is emerging about how legal troubles were mounting for Internet activist Aaron Swartz in the weeks before his suicide on Friday. The Wall Street Journal's Spencer E. Ante, Anjali Athavaley, and Joe Palazzolo report this morning that lawyers defending him on 13 felony counts, including wire and computer fraud for breaking into and downloading MIT's academic journal database JSTOR, had failed to reach a plea bargain deal with Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen Heymann ahead of the April trial date. The prosecution demanded that Swartz plead guilty on every count and would insist on a sentence that included prison time, The Journal reports.

Though The Journal cautions "the reasons why someone might take as drastic a step as killing himself are complex and rarely boil down to a simple trigger," Swartz's family, friends, and supporters on the Internet have blamed the criminal justice system for pushing Swartz's case too far. Anonymous has also made a statement of their own, hacking MIT's website and posting the following: "Whether or not the government contributed to his suicide, the government’s prosecution of Swartz was a grotesque miscarriage of justice, a distorted and perverse shadow of the justice that Aaron died fighting for." (The message has since been removed. TechCrunch has the full note.) 

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In addition to the stresses of the criminal case, Swartz worried about the financial burdens, too, his girlfriend Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman told The Journal. Swartz and his friends have already had to ask for money to build up a legal defense fund. Back then, the idea didn't receive that much sympathy. It made its way to Hacker News, where the most popular comment read: "I've never met Aaron but I've always enjoyed his writing and looked forward to meeting him one day. But there is something seriously wrong about this. Aaron should man up, take responsibility for his actions, and pay his own bills." Even people who agreed with his cause, didn't support Swartz. In a regretful and mournful post, NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen wrote on his Tumblr on Sunday, "I haven’t done nearly enough for the causes I shared with Aaron Swartz." And, apparently, Swartz was upset that MIT didn't stand up for him. Now, the university has launched a full investigation. 

While it's clear that the JSTOR case was putting pressure on Swartz, others, such as The New York Times's Noam Cohen and the Digital Times' Yukio Strachen noted hints of depression on his personal blog over the years. For example, in a November 2007 post on his personal blog, highlighted by MSNBC's Chris Hayes, titled "Sick" he talks about various "illnesses" he suffers from regularly, including "Depressed Mood, which he describes as such:

At best, you tell yourself that your thinking is irrational, that it is simply a mood disorder, that you should get on with your life. But sometimes that is worse. You feel as if streaks of pain are running through your head, you thrash your body, you search for some escape but find none.

Readers of his blog took another 2007 post titled "A Moment Before Dying" as a suicide note because in it he talked about "the day Aaron killed himself," notes Strachen. Swartz later clarified that it was just "a morose blog post in an attempt to cheer myself up about a guy who died," he wrote in a Reddit thread discussing the note. But, he also doesn't deny that it came from a dark place. He continues: "People got freaked out and misinterpreted it as a suicide note (perhaps understandably; I wasn't exactly in my right mind when I wrote it)." Even in his last post, an October 2012 musing on The Dark Knight Rises, Swartz hints at suicide, ending it with the following thought: "Thus Master Wayne is left without solutions. Out of options, it’s no wonder the series ends with his staged suicide." Perhaps like Bruce Wayne, Swartz felt he had no solutions or options left. 

Update: Federal prosecutors have now dismissed the case against Swartz, due to his death, the Associated Press reports

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.