Aaron Swartz's Death Turns Up Scrutiny on the State's U.S. Attorney

The White House must respond to a petition to remove the U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts from office.

Image Credit: Sage Ross via Flickr

In the wake of internet activist Aaron Swartz’s suicide this weekend, local institutions, from the U.S. Attorney’s office in Boston to MIT, are facing heady amounts of scrutiny.

The White House must now address a petition on its website demanding removal of U.S. Attorney for the District of Massachusetts Carmen Ortiz, which  reached 27,000 signatures Tuesday, well over the 25,000 needed to mandate an official response. Ortiz’s office pursued a case against Swartz for downloading millions of files from the website JSTOR on the MIT network. Prosecutors charged Swartz with crimes that could bring 35 years in prison and millions of dollars in fines. (They offered, at one point, and his lawyers rejected, a plea deal of six months in prison.) A statement from Swartz’s family in the wake of his death left no doubt that they believe the massive charges contributed to his death. “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.”

Joining Ortiz in the unhappy spotlight this kind of statement brings is Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen Heymann, who took charge of Swartz’s case. Swartz’s lawyer tells Globe columnist Kevin Cullen that he warned Heymann Swartz posed a suicide risk. “His reaction was a standard reaction in that office, not unique to Steve. He said, ‘Fine, we’ll lock him up.’?I’m not saying they made Aaron kill himself. Aaron might have done this anyway. I’m saying they were aware of the risk, and they were heedless.”

Journalists have begun digging through Heymann’s and Ortiz’s pasts as prosecutors. The website Buzzfeed dug up another case in which a hacker prosecuted by Heymann committed suicide. In that case, Heymann was pursuing an identity thief who’d stolen tens of thousands of credit card numbers, not an activist making a point about freedom of information on the web. But the young man Heymann’s office accused of the crime left said the government’s case convinced him to take his life.  There’s a White House petition demanding Heymann’s firing as well, though it’s less popular than Ortiz’s. So far, the U.S. Attorney’s Office has declined to comment, citing respect for the family.

Of course, the statement from Swartz’s family implicated not just the U.S. Attorney’s office, but also MIT. The Globe’s Cullen reports that while JSTOR didn’t want to press charges against Swartz, MIT did:

Marty Weinberg, who took the case over from Good, said he nearly negotiated a plea bargain in which Swartz would not serve any time. He said JSTOR signed off on it, but MIT would not.

“There were subsets of the MIT community who were profoundly in support of Aaron,” Weinberg said. That support did not override institutional interests.

The hacker collective Anonymous took over MIT’s website briefly Sunday, posting a link to the petition to fire Ortiz. However, while the U.S. Attorney’s office has remained quiet this week, MIT’s president issued a statement saying they’d launch an investigation into their role in Swartz’s prosecution and death.