Sometimes events in the news demand the attention of every Boston criminal lawyer. The case of Aaron Swartz is one such event.
In July 2011, Aaron Swartz – computer prodigy; co-creator of RSS technology and Reddit; and internet freedom activist – was indicted on charges related to hacking into JSTOR, a subscription-based collection of scientific and literary journals on the MIT network. Most of the journals would interest only a small fraction of the population. Mr. Swartz was accused of downloading 4.8 million pages of documents, with the intention of making them available for free online. He pleaded not guilty to the charges and, if convicted, he faced up to 35 years in prison and a million-dollar fine. Swartz’ trial was scheduled to begin in April of this year, but this past Friday, January 11, he took his own life.
Prosecution or persecution?
In the wake of his death, Swartz’ family and supporters have claimed that he was hounded by the government; subjected to prosecutorial intimidation and overreaching; and, moreover, that the actions of the Massachusetts U.S. Attorney’s Office and officials at MIT “contributed” to his death. That is, no doubt, true.
Swartz turned over to the government his hard drives containing all the documents, and JSTOR requested that the matter be dropped. The U.S. Attorney for the District of Massachusetts, Carmen Ortiz, refused to let it go. While Swartz’ supporters view the case as a glaring example of an abuse of power – of the government threatening an individual with personal ruin for what was, essentially, a victimless crime – Ortiz viewed the case differently from the outset. Apparently confusing her role as U.S. Attorney for that of a tent revival zealot, Ortiz defended indicting Swartz by declaring, “Stealing is stealing whether you use a computer command or a crowbar, and whether you take documents, data or dollars. It is equally harmful to the victim whether you sell what you have stolen or give it away.” Obviously, thefts are not always “equally harmful” to victims. Some “victims,” such as JSTOR, suffer little to no lasting harm. Other victims are financially devastated. To persuade a judge to mete out a lengthy prison term to a defendant convicted of stealing, the U.S. Attorney’s Office always stresses the value of the theft and the resulting harm to the victim. No compentent prosecutor argues, “Stealing is stealing, judge.”
Ignoring JSTOR’s request that the charges be dismissed, Ortiz’s attack dogs reportedly insisted that any plea bargain include a six month term of imprisonment in a Federal penitentiary. Ortiz’s minions even refused an offer from Swartz’ lawyers of a deferred prosecution, so that Swartz would serve time if he committed another offense in the future. While most prosecutors are loathe to show any mercy to an individual accused of a crime, it was startling to learn that MIT refused to support any deal that would allow Swartz to avoid imprisonment. Though Swartz inflicted no actual harm to MIT, it was not about to recommend leniency for a student who embarrassed it by infiltrating its security and threatened the modest income generated by its sacred, if rarely read, journals.
What has happened since Swartz’ death?
Much has happened in the days since Aaron Swartz’ death, including, most notably:
- A We the People petition calling for the removal of U.S. Attorney Ortiz has garnered over 35,000 signatures (as of 1/16/13) (https://petitions.whitehouse.gov/petitions).
- MIT has announced that it will conduct an internal investigation and “thorough analysis” of its role in the case.
- JSTOR has opened a portion of its library for free reading by the public, on a limited basis.
Undoubtedly, this case will continue to galvanize proponents of freedom of online information and to reverberate through the criminal justice community.
Contact Boston Criminal Lawyer, Kevin J. Mahoney
If you are facing federal criminal charges, and you would like to speak with a knowledgeable and experienced Boston criminal lawyer about your situation, call me, at 617-492-0055, to schedule a free initial consultation.
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