Prosecutors May Have Wanted Aaron Swartz In Jail To Justify Arresting Him In The First Place

aaron swartz/carmen ortizAaron Swartz and lead prosecutor Carmen Ortiz

Photo: Wikipedia/The United States Attorney’s Office

After digital activist Aaron Swartz’s suicide last month, tens of thousands of people criticised federal prosecutors who demanded that Swartz plead guilty to 13 felonies and serve jail time for illegally downloading academic papers.Swartz was arrested in January 2011 after he downloaded millions of academic papers from the nonprofit online database J-STOR, using a program he wrote that allowed him access to J-STOR from MIT’s network.

Mike Masnick of Techdirt highlights a potential reason for the aggressive prosecution of the 26-year-old RSS co-developer and Reddit co-founder: The Department of Justice (DoJ) felt like it needed to justify bringing charges in the first place.

From The Huffington Post (emphasis ours):

Some congressional staffers left the briefing with the impression that prosecutors believed they needed to convict Swartz of a felony that would put him in jail for a short sentence in order to justify bringing the charges in the first place, according to two aides with knowledge of the briefing.

Masnick notes that while the HuffPo article is primarily about how Swartz’s Guerrilla Open Access Manifesto played a role in the prosecution, the allegation that the DoJ demanded jailtime and felony convictions to save face is a “much bigger deal.”

That is troubling in light of Swartz’s father assertion that his son was “killed by the government,” and Swartz’s girlfriend’s belief that Swartz’s death was caused by “exhaustion, by fear, and by uncertainty” brought on “by a persecution and a prosecution that had already wound on for 2 years … and had already drained all of his financial resources.”

And the kicker is that the government’s case may have been vulnerable from the beginning.

Swartz’s attorney Eliot Peters believed that “this was a case we could and would win” because their team had been arguing to suppress key evidence including Swartz’s laptop and USB drive. The Secret Service failed to get a search warrant for the laptop until 34 days after it seized it, Peters says.

“Moreover,” Peters told BI via email, “since the MIT network was open, it would have been very hard to prove that Aaron gained unauthorised access to it. And he was no fraudster. I believed this was a case we could and would win.”

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