As soon as Reddit co-founder Aaron Swartz, 26, was found hanging from a belt in the Brooklyn apartment he shared with his girlfriend, the conspiracy theories started flying.
Was it murder? Did he kill himself because he was facing up to 50 years in federal prison for computer and wire fraud? Did the prosecutor make him do it?
The case is shrouded in mystery and Swartz, an internet activist and programmer, didn’t leave a note in the wake of his suicide. And while police suspect zero foul play at the moment, reports being released about Swartz’s connections and his depression might suggest that there was more to his suicide.
According to The Daily Mail, the same prosecutor who is being accused of acting “over zealously” in Swartz’s case also played a role in another young hacker’s suicide in 2008.
Assistant United States Attorney Stephen Heymann had reportedly been insisting on jail time for Swartz and was refusing to negotiate a plea deal on the 30 years in jail he faced for stealing academic papers.
Jonathan James killed himself aged 24 two weeks after the Secret Service raided his house as part of its investigation into the TJX Hacker case – which is known as the largest identity hack in history.
The stress and strain of the trial, combined with his alleged depression, may have led to his suicide, his family suggested.
“Aaron’s death is not simply a personal tragedy. It is the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach,” his family said in a statement.
“Decisions made by officials in the Massachusetts U.S. attorney’s office and at MIT contributed to his death.”
But was Heymann really being overzealous in his pursuit?
According to The Daily Mail, Swartz’s own lawyer had originally approached federal prosecutors in fall 2012 about a deal and was turned down, even though JSTOR, the online database Swartz hacked into, declined to pursue charges. Elliot Peters is accusing Heymann of pursuing the case to gain publicity.
He said Heymann was looking for “some juicy looking computer crime cases and Aaron’s case, sadly for Aaron, fit the bill. He thought he was going to receive press and he was going to be a tough guy and read his name in the newspaper.”
Peters said Heymann was threatening Swartz with potentially longer prison sentences if Swartz didn’t accept his plea deal offers.
“He was very intransigent,” Peters said of Heymann. “It was his philosophy that as you got closer to trial the plea offers only got worse. But the offer he was making was so unreasonable that having it get worse didn’t concern me much.”
But what about the community that rallied behind Swartz? The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where Swartz was revered, declined to support a petition last fall from Peters that could have helped Swartz avoid prison, according to the Huffington Post.
“As an institution, [MIT] declined to take a formal position in the plea negotiations, even though they recognized that a large segment of the MIT community cared deeply about Aaron and would have wished to have this case resolved in a positive manner,” one of his attorneys, Martin Weinberg, said in an interview.
The statement came as the hacker group Anonymous, along with hundreds of academics, posted links to copyright-protected journals online as a tribute to Swartz (the movement was started on Swartz’s own site, Reddit).
In what Swartz’s parents are calling “decisions that led to his death,” MIT also handed over details of Swartz’s computer activity to law enforcement without a court order.
“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. Meanwhile, unlike JSTOR, MIT refused to stand up for Aaron and its own community’s most cherished principles,” his parents said in a statement.
The president of MIT, L. Rafael Reif, said in a statement:
“I want to express very clearly that I and all of us at MIT are extremely saddened by the death of this promising young man, who touched the lives of so many. It pains me to think that MIT played any role in a series of events that have ended in tragedy.”
But Swartz’s girlfriend, Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman, told the Huffington Post that it wasn’t the role MIT played in the fiasco, but what they didn’t do.
“MIT could have ended the fiasco with a single statement saying, ‘We don’t think we were a victims of federal crime,'” she said. “They were urged repeatedly to do so and refused and hid behind a cloak of neutrality.”
“MIT made the initial mistake of calling the feds to begin with,” Stinebrickner-Kauffman added. “There was no reason for the federal government to be involved. They could have rectified that mistake easily but chose not to.”
Could there be a conspiracy behind this all? Is there some reason MIT didn’t defend Swartz to keep him out of jail, or why the prosecutor wanted to put him behind bars for so long?
The jury is still out, but there are some facts about Swartz’s charges and possible sentencing that may make you scratch your head.
According to Think Progress, Swartz was facing up to 50 years in federal prison for logging into JSTOR, a database of scholarly articles, and rapidly downloading those articles with the intent to make them public. But surprisingly, that is more time than a bank robber or murderer would spend in jail.
To put things in perspective, Think Progress released this list of federal crimes and the maximum amount of time one may spend behind bars if committed.
Manslaughter: max of 10 years
- Bank Robbery: max of 25 years
- Selling Child Pornography: max of 20 years
- Knowingly Spreading AIDS: max of 10 years
- Selling Slaves: max of 20 years
- Helping al-Qaeda Develop A Nuclear Weapon: max of 20 years
- Violence At International Airports: max of 20 years
- Threatening The President: max of five years
Are our priorities messed up? Or was there something really wrong with Swartz’s case that we don’t know about. We’re hoping time will tell.