Aaron Swartz Prosecutor: Legal System Needs Mental Health Fixes

2/20/13Follow @xconomy

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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  • Joachim

    Ms. Ortiz and Mr. Heyman ruined Mr. Swartz’ life over a violation of a JSTOR’s terms of service. Then he committed suicide. That is what this case boils down to.

    Ms. Ortiz and Mr. Heyman need to learn about proportionality. Their
    methods were completely out of proportion with Mr. Swartz’ alleged
    ‘crime': the downloading of files in violation of JSTOR’s terms of

    Ms. Ortiz and Mr. Heyman wanted to score political points with a “high-profile internet case” they so desired to have on their resume. Now it is, but not in the way they had hoped.

    Aren’t there some *real* crimes they could be working on?

    • nwmhqqty

      Sorry bud, but if someone is breaking into my closet and rummaging around in my files, it sounds like a real crime to me. If someone breaks into my house and watches my DVDs, he’s still committing a real crime, even if he owns the same DVDs at home.

      • IskenderElRusi

        He didn’t break in, the closet was not locked. He had the right, through his Harvard affiliation, to download the articles — just not at the rate he set up his laptop to do it. Whatever Aaron did wrong, your comparison can’t hold, since it’s faulty in more than one way.

  • nwmhqqty

    While I think mental health is a complicated issue for all of us, I think it’s difficult for the criminal justice system to just give someone a get-out-of-jail card just because they’re depressed. Of course they’re going to be depressed. They got caught.

    And while everyone talks about proportionality and fairness, he was rooting around in someone’s closet without permission. Aaron and his gang of apologists go nuclear whenever the NSA or the CIA do that. What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.

    • IskenderElRusi

      With this kind of attitude, don’t be surprised when one day the authorities find a reason to cook *your* goose. Nobody – no matter how pure and innocent – can resist the state machine, if there is no mechanism for proportionality and fairness built into it.

  • public_servant_watch

    “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.” NEWS FLASH this is 2013 and writing about depression in 2007 which was related to physical illness does not give anyone the right to assume that Aaron was was suffering a prolonged intrinsic depression. However, legal abuse syndrome can cause an extrinsic depression and if legal abuse syndrome was the root cause of Aaron’s depression the DOJ is responsible for his death. Since the court record also contained his address which is suppose to be redacted in criminal cases IMO along with the fact that Aaron’s activist actions created powerful enemies homicide can not be ruled out; how convienent that Aaron had written about his depression. IMO Ortiz was working for the corrupt Administrative Offices of the US Courts; the PACER download initiated government harassment and the AOUSC were not happy that no charges occurred because no crime occurred. Our corrupt federal court system is a huge racketeering enterprise and should Aaron ever be successful in getting the PACER records free and open to the public the game would be over. This entire incident appears to be RISK MANAGEMENT by the corrupt. Show criminal and civil litigation is now common place in the USA; attorneys, corporations and government official benefit. Further, the Massachusetts DOJ refused to investigate a complaint of computer crime where court staff were using computers provided to them by the tax payer to enter bogus opinions and judgments and engaged in the identity theft of US District and Circuit Judges while in collusion with outside attorneys in order to obstruct justice; the aforementioned was a crime with victims and common practice in a corrupt system yet the DOJ went after Aaron with overreach of the law and no victim. http://www.scribd.com/tired_of_corruption