Aaron Swartz Isn't the First Hacker to Commit Suicide in the Face of a Federal Investigation

Adam Clark Estes

Few people close to him doubt that an overzealous federal prosecution team contributed to Aaron Swartz's suicide last Saturday. And quite tragically, he wasn't the first to find himself in that position. On Monday night, BuzzFeed dug up the case of Jonathan James, a young hacker who was implicated in the largest personal identity hack in history. Not only was the same department involved in James's case as in Swartz's, but it was also the same prosecutor, Assistant United States Attorney Stephen Heymann, who pursued each of the young men. 

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James left few questions about why he decided to killed himself. Two weeks after the Secret Service invaded James's home, the 24-year-old was found dead in his home of an apparent suicide. "I have no faith in the 'justice' system. Perhaps my actions today, and this letter, will send a stronger message to the public," he said in a suicide note. "Either way, I have lost control over this situation, and this is my only way to regain control. … Remember, it's not whether you win or lose, it's whether I win or lose, and sitting in jail for 20, 10, or even 5 years for a crime I didn't commit is not me winning. I die free."

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Now, the cases of Aaron Swartz and Jonathan James are very different. James was accused of stealing tens of thousands of credit card numbers, while some people would take issue with even calling Swartz a hacker. Swartz's crusade was one for free culture and an open Internet. But the prosecution's relentless pursuit of the 26-year-old is confusing, especially since JSTOR and MIT -- the two parties from whom he allegedly stole thousands of academic articles -- decided not to press charges.

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One thing is becoming increasingly clear, though: The federal prosecution teams that go after hackers are aggressive. Swartz's family called the young activist's death "the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach." That theory is emboldened by the fact that Swartz's legal troubles had heated up in the days before his suicide. It was also revealed on Monday that Swartz's lawyer Aaron Good had told federal prosecutors in Massachusetts that Swartz was suicidal. Good explained to the Associated Press, "Their response was, put him in jail, he'll be safe there."