Aaron Swartz Prosecutor: Legal System Needs Mental Health Fixes

The top federal prosecutor in the case of Internet activist Aaron Swartz says the young man’s suicide was “a tremendous tragedy” that points to the need for better mental health services in the broader court system.

In an interview with Boston NPR station WBUR, Boston-based U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz declined to delve into the details of the Swartz case. She cited an ongoing congressional inquiry, launched earlier this year by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

Swartz, who had battled depression over a period of years and written publicly about it, hanged himself in early January as federal prosecutors sought jail time in a computer-crimes case against him. Authorities say Swartz illegally downloaded huge numbers of academic papers from the paid website JSTOR, in part by using a hidden computer hooked up to MIT’s network.

Swartz was an online pioneer, helping to create the Reddit content-sharing network, the RSS publishing standard, and the Creative Commons content licensing system. He also was an activist dedicated to open access of information—he’d previously been investigated for mass-downloading court files from a government website, and that appeared to be his motivation in the JSTOR case.

Friends and compatriots of Swartz have criticized the U.S. attorney’s office in Boston for pursuing the criminal case against him too doggedly. MIT also has been criticized for not asking prosecutors to drop the charges, and has launched its own investigation.

Ortiz, the top federal prosecutor in Boston, has previously expressed sympathy about Swartz’s death. She also pointed out that prosecutors were seeking a relatively light sentence of six months in a light-custody facility.

In Wednesday’s interview with WBUR, she said Swartz’s death “was just a tremendous tragedy, and I don’t think that there’s anything that can occur to rectify that.”

Ortiz went on to say that Swartz’s case points out some holes in the overall court system’s ability to track the mental health of defendants:

“I think that much needs to be done in the area, really, of mental illness. How do we identify that mental illness—and not just prosecutors. Because you have to understand, prosecutors obviously are not in the best position to know a defendant’s mental state—how it’s deteriorating, how it’s progressing.

But that is definitely not only a discussion, but an issue that we—and when I say we, I mean prosecutors, defense attorneys, pre-trial services, and the court system—needs to be engaged in so that we can all do a better job at that.”

That’s unlikely to soothe those closest to Swartz, however. His girlfriend, Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman, who lived with Swartz for the last eight months of his life, has written that she does not think depression was the direct cause of his death.

“I believe that Aaron’s death was caused by a criminal justice system that prioritizes power over mercy, vengeance over justice,” she wrote.

Swartz image used under Creative Commons license from Flickr user Prachatai.

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