Current Weather
The Spy FM

Did Prosecutors Go Too Far In Swartz Case?

Filed by KOSU News in US News.
January 15, 2013

Criticism is raining down on prosecutors in Massachusetts after the suicide of computer genius Aaron Swartz, who helped to develop innovations like RSS.

Swartz, 26, had been facing trial on 13 felony charges for allegedly breaking into the Massachusetts Institute of Technology network and accessing millions of documents. Friends and family argue Swartz was the victim of Justice Department overreach. But legal experts say the case is more complicated than that.

According to a grand jury indictment, during several months in 2010 and 2011, Swartz broke into a closet at MIT, accessed the school’s computer network without authorization, and downloaded a major portion of an archive of scholarly articles. And just before he was caught, prosecutors say, Swartz tried to elude cameras by holding a bicycle helmet to shield his face.

“I’m really not sure that anyone in this country would disagree that computer hacking is a problem,” says Washington defense lawyer Jeff Ifrah, who has been following the case. “Should it be a crime? That’s an issue for Congress. But Congress decided to make it a crime, and prosecutors have an obligation to enforce those crimes.”

Prosecutors in Massachusetts who brought the case charged Swartz with wire and computer fraud, violations of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act that could have carried more than three decades in prison. Lawyers say even if Swartz had gone to trial and had been convicted, he would have faced about four years or less, given his lack of a prior criminal record.

‘A New World Of Digital Crimes’

Harvard Law professor Lawrence Lessig, a friend of Swartz, told NPR that making a big federal case over the computer hack was out of hand.

“We live in a world where the architects of the financial crisis dine at the White House regularly,” Lessig said. “The idea that the government felt it so essential to insist that this behavior be marked as a felony is just unfathomable.”

Swartz’s supporters say he had a simple motive — he wanted information to be free — not to make money or commit fraud. But the law is a blunt instrument. Some say, too blunt.

“It’s, at the outset, clearly a stupid idea to do what he did. And the criminal justice system doesn’t really have great answers for what to do in this sort of situation,” says Orin Kerr, a professor at George Washington University and a former computer crimes prosecutor. “We’re very familiar with laws on trespass and laws on burglary and laws on murder. Those laws have been on the books for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. But we’ve entered a new world of digital crimes. And we’re still trying to figure out what should be punished and how severe those punishments should be.”

‘A Public Conversation’

Swartz’s former lawyers say they had been trying to negotiate a plea deal with prosecutors repeatedly, ever since the charges came to light. But they couldn’t reach a satisfactory agreement.

No surprise, says defense lawyer Ifrah.

“By the time an indictment is handed down, absolutely, it’s the prosecutors’ show now,” Ifrah says. “And trying to negotiate a deal in those circumstances, where there might be other defendants who are cooperating against you, where there might be some conduct that you’re actually a little ashamed of and can’t really, truly explain, when the stakes are that high, it’s very, very depressing.”

Ifrah says he’s never had a client take his own life before trial. Friends of Swartz say he suffered from depression.

Swartz, recognized all over the world for his technical prowess, was remarkable in another way, too. Every day, criminal defendants and their friends argue the justice system is out of whack. Those arguments generally go nowhere. But the Swartz case, which ended in tragedy, could actually start a dialogue about what’s fair.

“We need a public conversation about what the laws should prohibit and how severe they should be,” says Kerr.

Swartz’s friends say that would be a fitting legacy. [Copyright 2013 National Public Radio]

Leave a Reply

10AM to 11PM On Point

On Point

On Point unites distinct and provocative voices with passionate discussion as it confronts the stories that are at the center of what is important in the world today. Leaving no perspective unchallenged, On Point digs past the surface and into the core of a subject, exposing each of its real world implications.

Listen Live Now!

11AM to 12PM The Story

The Story

The Story with Dick Gordon brings the news home through first-person accounts. The live weekday program is passionate, personal, immediate and relevant to listeners, focusing on the news where it changes our lives, causes us to stop and rethink, inspires us.

View the program guide!

12PM to 1PM Fresh Air

Fresh Air

This one-hour program features Terry Gross' in-depth interviews with prominent cultural and entertainment figures, as well as distinguished experts on current affairs and news.

View the program guide!

Upcoming Events in your area (Submit your event today!)

Streaming audio and podcasts

Stream KOSU on your smartphone

Phone Streaming

SmartPhone listening options on this page are intended for many iPhones, Blackberries, etc. with low-cost software applications available to listen to our full-time web streams, both News on KOSU-1 and Classical on KOSU-2.

Learn more about our complete range of streaming services

We're perfecting the patient experience - Stillwater Medical Center