Death of Hactivist Brings Scrutiny of Massachusetts U.S. Attorney’s Office
By Elizabeth Murphy | January 14, 2013 12:33 pm

The suicide of a web activist and noted programmer has prompted questions about the federal case against him and calls for the removal of Massachusetts U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz.

Aaron Swartz

Aaron Swartz, an open-internet activist and creator of Reddit and RSS, committed suicide Friday after a deal to settle felony computer hacking charges fell apart, according to the LA Times. The 26-year-old’s family said in a statement that his suicide was “the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach.” After his death, supporters created a White House petition calling for the removal of Ortiz from her position as U.S. Attorney. In two days, it has garnered more than 12,000 signatures.

A spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s office did not comment on the charge from Swartz’s family, saying only that “we want to respect the privacy of the family and do not feel it is appropriate to comment on the case at this time.”

Swartz, who had battled with depression, was arrested in January 2011 after he allegedly attempted to download the contents of JSTOR, a database of academic journals that is available at institutes of higher education. Swartz allegedly attempted to download the huge collection with a guest account given to him by Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which has launched an internal investigation into the chain of events that lead to Swartz’s death. He faced up to 35 years in prison and a $1 million fine.

JSTOR declined to press charges against Swartz, but Ortiz’s office decided to move forward with the case. Just last week, though, JSTOR announced it was freeing up more than 4.5 million journal articles for public use. Swartz had also previously been involved in an effort to make federal court records more easily available to the public. In 2009, Swartz downloaded about 20 percent of the PACER database and sent documents to activist Carl Malamud to post on his website. The FBI launched a probe of Swartz but later dropped it.

Anonymous hackers knocked the MIT and Justice Department websites offline on Sunday evening in a show of solidarity with Swartz.

The Massachusetts U.S. Attorney’s office this morning filed a routine motion to dismiss the charges against Swartz, citing his death.

Ortiz is a rising start among the 94 U.S. Attorney’s across the country. Her name has been tossed around frequently to fill soon-to-be open positions in the Senate and governor’s office. Her office also netted the largest amount of criminal and civil fines and penalties out of all the other U.S. Attorney’s offices in fiscal year 2012, pulling in $8.8 billion.

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