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Criticism is raining down on federal prosecutors after the suicide of 26-year-old computer prodigy Aaron Swartz. Swartz had been facing trial on 13 felony charges. He allegedly broke into the MIT network and downloaded millions of documents. His family says Swartz was the victim of Justice Department overreach.
As NPR's Carrie Johnson reports, the case is more complicated than that.
CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: The grand jury indictment against Aaron Swartz speaks in cold hard facts. Here's what they say. For 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.
Jeff Ifrah is a defense lawyer in Washington.
JEFF IFRAH: I'm really not sure that anyone in this country would disagree that computer hacking is a problem. 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.
JOHNSON: Prosecutors in Massachusetts who brought the case charged him with wire and computer fraud, violations of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act that could have carried decades in prison. Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig was a friend of Aaron Swartz. He told NPR making a big federal case over the computer hack was out of hand.
LAWRENCE LESSIG: We live in a world where the architects of the financial crisis dine at the White House regularly. The idea that the government felt it so essential to insist that this behavior be marked as a felony is just unfathomable.
JOHNSON: Swartz's supporters say he wanted information to be free, not to make money or commit fraud, but the law is a blunt instrument - some say too blunt. Orin Kerr is a professor at George Washington University.
ORIN KERR: 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.
JOHNSON: Kerr, a former computer crimes prosecutor, says the charges against Swartz are based on a fair reading of the law.
KERR: 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.
JOHNSON: Swartz's former lawyers say they had been trying to negotiate a plea deal with prosecutors several times since the charges came to light, but they couldn't reach a satisfactory agreement. No surprise, says defense lawyer Jeff Ifrah.
IFRAH: By the time an indictment is handed down, absolutely, it's the prosecutors' show now. 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.
JOHNSON: But Ifrah says he's never had a client take his own life before trial. Friends of Aaron 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. Orin Kerr.
KERR: We need a public conversation about what the laws should prohibit and how severe they should be.
JOHNSON: Aaron Swartz's friends say that would be a fitting legacy. Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.
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