The family of a Reddit co-founder who committed suicide weeks before he was to go on trial on federal charges that he stole millions of scholarly articles is blaming prosecutors for his death.
Aaron Swartz hanged himself Friday night in his Brooklyn apartment, 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 trial was to begin next month. If convicted, he faced decades in prison and a fortune in fines.
In a statement Saturday, Swartz's family in Chicago expressed 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.
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Elliot Peters, Swartz's California-based defense attorney and a former federal prosecutor in Manhattan, said yesterday 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.
Heymann, reached at his home in Winchester, Mass., referred all questions to a spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney's office in Boston, Christina DiIorio-Sterling.
Swartz, a zealous advocate of public online access, was extolled 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 on its home page.
Swartz co-founded the social news website Reddit, which was sold later to Condé Nast, as well as the political action group Demand Progress, which fights 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."
Experts argued that the result of the actions Swartz was accused of was the same as the federal government's PACER electronic archive: more information publicly available.
JSTOR announced this week that it would make more than 4.5 million articles publicly available for free.
Swartz's funeral is scheduled Tuesday in Highland Park, Ill.