A Guide to the Finger-Pointing After Aaron Swartz's Suicide

Giving proof to the caution of experts who say that no suicide has a simple explanation or single cause, as more details have emerged, the roles of the players in the federal prosecution of Aaron Swartz, and their alleged contributions to his suicide, has become much more complex.

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Giving proof to the caution of experts who say that no suicide has a simple explanation or single cause, as more details have emerged, the roles of the players in the federal prosecution of Aaron Swartz, and their alleged contributions to his suicide, have become much more complex. Swartz's death last Friday prompted a lot of finger pointing, including from his family, at the federal prosecution for breaking into the academic database JSTOR using MIT servers. While the search for a single villain in the story will likely be fruitless, the reporting that has emerged in the last couple days illustrates the pressures Swartz was under.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

The Role: As the official statement from MIT explains it, the university "played a role" in the legal troubles Swartz faced over the last two years. Swartz had broken into the academic journal database JSTOR using the MIT network. When the government indicted Swartz, the university did not object and valued the theft at $50,000. Because of this involvement, Anonymous briefly hacked MIT's website in solidarity with Swartz. MIT has announced it will investigate the school's decisions in the case.

What They Did: It's more about what MIT did not do. "MIT could have ended the fiasco with a single statement saying, 'We don't think we were a victims of federal crime,'" said Swartz's girlfriend Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman. "They were urged repeatedly to do so and refused and hid behind a cloak of neutrality." Unlike JSTOR, which distanced itself from the case, asking the government to drop the charges, as Swartz's mentor and fellow Internet activist Lawrence Lessig explained in a post this weekend, MIT took a harsh stance on Swartz. Officials at the university had refused to sign a petition that would have helped Swartz's case, reports The Huffington Post's Gary Smith. When lawyers attempted to negotiate a plea bargain, JSTOR participated, but MIT refused, reports The Boston Globe's Kevin Cullen. In addition to what the institution did not do, MIT also actively assisted the feds, handing over information to prosecutors without a court order, Swartz's attorney's argued in court filings.

Carmen Ortiz, U.S. Attorney for Massachussetts

The Role: Often described with terms like "harsh" and "rigid," Ortiz's office lead the investigation, and a White House petition with over 28,000 signatures has asked that Ortiz be removed from office. That comes at a politically inconvenient time, since the Boston Globe reports she plans on running for Massachusetts governor. Following Swartz's death the Justice Department has dropped the charges, as is customary practice, and the U.S. Attorney's office has declined to release a statement out of respect for the family's privacy. Ortiz's husband Tom Dolan has taken to Twitter to defend the idea that she was too hard on Swartz, explaining that a six month plea offer was a kind gesture.

What She Did: Ortiz set the tone of the investigation, according to The Daily Beast's Michael Daly. "Stealing is stealing, whether you use a computer command or a crowbar, whether you take documents, data or dollars," Ortiz said after Swartz’s arrest. "It is equally harmful to the victim whether you sell what you have stolen or give it away." Considering what Swartz did, Ortiz's office pushed too hard, argue critics. Specifically, the feds pushed for this as a "property" theft worth a lot of money (thanks to MIT's estimate of value), which allowed prosecutors to press harsher charges, as Lessig points out:

From the beginning, the government worked as hard as it could to characterize what Aaron did in the most extreme and absurd way. The “property” Aaron had “stolen,” we were told, was worth “millions of dollars” — with the hint, and then the suggestion, that his aim must have been to profit from his crime. But anyone who says that there is money to be made in a stash of ACADEMIC ARTICLES is either an idiot or a liar. 

Even at the time of the indictment, legal experts found the fraud charges a little off base. Philadelphia trail lawyer Max Kennerly explained on his blog that in order to claim wire fraud—which they later did—Ortiz would have to prove that Swartz defrauded JSTOR out of money.

Steven Heymann, Assistant U.S. Attorney

The Role: Heymann was the prosecutor in Ortiz's office assigned to handle the case.

What He Did: Swartz's lawyer Eliot Peters alleged to The Huffington Post that Heymann, who prosecuted another case against a hacker which ended in a suicide, was driven by "juicy" publicity. "He was very intransigent," Peters said of Heymann. "It was his philosophy that as you got closer to trial the plea offers only got worse." Another lawyer for Swartz, Andrew Good, also claims that he warned Heymann about Swartz's depression. "The thing that galls me is that I told Heymann the kid was a suicide risk," Good told Cullen. "His reaction was a standard reaction in that office, not unique to Steve. He said, 'Fine, we’ll lock him up.' 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.”

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