NEW YORK (AP) - The family of a Reddit co-founder is blaming prosecutors for his suicide just weeks before he was to go on trial on federal charges that he stole millions of scholarly articles.
Aaron Swartz hanged himself in his Brooklyn apartment Friday night, his family and authorities said. The 26-year-old had fought to make online content free to the public and as a teenager helped create RSS, a family of Web feed formats used to gather updates from blogs, news headlines, audio and video for users.
In 2011, he was charged with stealing millions of scientific journals from a computer archive at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in an attempt to make them freely available.
He had pleaded not guilty, and his federal trial was to begin next month. If convicted, he faced decades in prison and a fortune in fines.
In a statement released Saturday, Swartz’s family in Chicago expressed not only grief over his death but also bitterness toward federal prosecutors pursuing the case against him in Massachusetts.
“Aaron’s death is not simply a personal tragedy. It is the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach. Decisions made by officials in the Massachusetts U.S. Attorney’s Office and at MIT contributed to his death,” they said.
Elliot Peters, Swartz’s California-based defense attorney and a former federal prosecutor in Manhattan, told The Associated Press on Sunday that the case “was horribly overblown” because Swartz had “the right” to download from JSTOR, a subscription service used by MIT that offers digitized copies of articles from more than 1,000 academic journals.
Peters said even the company took the stand that the computer crimes section of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Boston had overreached in seeking prison time for Swartz and insisting _ two days before his suicide _ that he plead guilty to all 13 felony counts. Peters said JSTOR’s attorney, Mary Jo White _ the former top federal prosecutor in Manhattan _ had called Stephen Heymann, the lead Boston prosecutor in the case.
“She asked that they not pursue the case,” Peters said.
Reached at his home in Winchester, Mass., Heymann referred all questions to a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Boston, Christina DiIorio-Sterling. She did not immediately respond to an email and phone message from the AP seeking comment.
A zealous advocate of public online access, Swartz was extolled Saturday by those who believed as he did. He was “an extraordinary hacker and activist,” the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an international nonprofit digital rights group based in California wrote in a tribute on its home page.
“Playing Mozart’s Requiem in honor of a brave and brilliant man,” tweeted Carl Malamud, an Internet public domain advocate who believes in free access to legally obtained files.
Swartz co-founded the social news website Reddit, which was later sold to Conde Nast, as well as the political action group Demand Progress, which campaigns against Internet censorship.
He apparently struggled at times with depression, writing in a 2007 blog post: “Surely there have been times when you’ve been sad. Perhaps a loved one has abandoned you or a plan has gone horribly awry. … You feel worthless. … depressed mood is like that, only it doesn’t come for any reason and it doesn’t go for any either.”
Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig, faculty director of the Safra Center for Ethics where Swartz was once a fellow, wrote: “We need a better sense of justice. … The question this government needs to answer is why it was so necessary that Aaron Swartz be labeled a `felon.’”