Prosecutors blamed for web genius Aaron Swartz's suicide

Jan 13, 2013

Tributes pour in for Reddit founder – but there's anger over 'exceptionally harsh' hacking charges he faced

THE FAMILY of Aaron Swartz, the 26-year-old ‘kid genius’ found hanged in his Brooklyn apartment, have blamed federal prosecutors for his suicide.

Although Swartz was known to be a depressive, family and friends believe the threat of a major prosecution for computer hacking was to blame for his death.

Swartz, who began computer programming as a child and was an early developer of website Reddit, was facing charges that he stole millions of journal articles from the electronic archive JSTOR in an attempt to make them freely available. If convicted, he faced decades in prison and a fortune in fines.

He denied charges of computer fraud at an initial hearing last year, but his federal trial was due to begin next month.

The news of his death prompted tributes from across the tech world. Tim Berners-Lee, who is considered the founder of the World Wide Web, wrote on Twitter. “Aaron dead. World wanderers, we have lost a wise elder. Hackers for right, we are one down. Parents all, we have lost a child. Let us weep.”

Lawrence Lessig, a renowned Harvard law professor and activist, wrote on his blog: “A kid genius. A soul, a conscience, the source of a question I have asked myself a million times: What would Aaron think?”

Kevin Poulsen, news editor at and a former colleague of Swartz, described Swartz as “a coder with a conscience: a tireless and talented hacker” who poured his energy into issues such as copyright reform and information freedom.

“I don’t know why he killed himself, but Aaron has written openly about suffering from depression,” says Poulsen. But he added that “it couldn’t have helped” that he faced a looming federal criminal trial.

Swartz’s family have laid the blame directly at the door of prosecutors. On a memorial site created in his memory, Aaron’s parents, Robert and Susan Swartz, his two brothers and his partner, Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman, released a statement to say that Aaron’s death was “not simply a personal tragedy”.

They wrote: “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. The US 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.”

Sign up for our daily newsletter

Disqus - noscript

Hired killers prefer hanging their victim and creating the appearance of a self-inflicted death. Even the suicide note can be faked under torture. Investigators find it impossible to prove murder without a witness or confession from the ones that strangled their victim with a sheet or belt.