Analysis: Activist Swartz’s Suicide Could Shake MIT to Its Core

Federal prosecutors are weighing in for the first time publicly about the case against Aaron Swartz, the activist programmer and Internet pioneer who committed suicide last week after being charged with more than a dozen federal computer crimes.

The government’s comments certainly make the possible punishment that Swartz faced seem less daunting than many previous accounts. Prosecutors revealed that they never intended to seek the decades of maximum sentences allowed by law, and in fact Swartz was offered a deal for six months in a low-security prison.

That explanation may not silence a wave of public outrage over the case. But the unanswered questions about MIT’s involvement in the case could also be troublesome for the university’s leaders. (More on that below.)

For the best summary of Swartz’s case, see the interactive timeline produced by The Tech, MIT’s student newspaper—it gives many details that aren’t available without access to the federal court system’s electronic filing site.

But here’s a quick recap of the facts:

Swartz, 26, was arrested in early 2010 after MIT officials found a computer wired into the university’s network in a basement room. The computer was attached to external hard drives, and had been using specialized programs to repeatedly download scholarly articles from the subscription site JSTOR, authorities said.

Authorities said they identified Swartz checking on the setup over video surveillance and subsequently searched his home and office. It quickly became a federal case, with the justification that the downloading occurred across state lines.

Swartz had pled not guilty to the government’s 13 charges, and his case was expected to go to trial in the spring.

While described as a brilliant mind, Swartz had also written publicly about his own battles with depression. He committed suicide Jan. 11, and in public statements since his death, Swartz’s family has said the government had severely overreached in its pursuit of criminal charges. They also criticized MIT for its role in the case.

“Decisions made by officials in the Massachusetts U.S. attorney’s office and at MIT contributed to his death,” Swartz’s family said. “The U.S. attorney’s office pursued an exceptionally harsh array of charges, carrying potentially over 30 years in prison, to punish an alleged crime that had no victims.”

Today, Boston-based U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz made her first public statement on the case since Swartz’s suicide was first reported by The Tech over the weekend. While expressing sympathy, Ortiz also defended her team’s actions.

She also points out a very significant fact that had been leaked to the press already: Rather than the 35 years and $1 million in fines that Swartz could have theoretically suffered under a maximum sentence on all the charges, prosecutors wanted to cut a deal that would recommend a judge sentence him to six months in a low-security prison.

“The prosecutors recognized that there was no evidence against Mr. Swartz indicating that he committed his acts for personal financial gain, and they recognized that his conduct—while a violation of the law—did not warrant the severe punishments authorized by Congress and called for by the sentencing guidelines,” Ortiz wrote. “At no time did this office ever seek—or ever tell Mr. Swartz’s attorneys that it intended to seek—maximum penalties under the law.”

Swartz’s lawyers, meanwhile, have said they didn’t plan to take the prosecution’s plea deal, hoping instead to win the case at trial.

While Swartz pled not guilty, it seems clear from court filings that … Next Page »

Single PageCurrently on Page: 1 2

Trending on Xconomy