Last night hundreds gathered to mourn Aaron Swartz at Cooper Union. Folk singer, Pete Seeger lamented Aaron's death, saying "[It is] a tragedy for this brilliant young man to be so threatened that he hanged himself" (source). The charges against Aaron Swartz were quietly dropped this past Monday. His family had earlier issued a statement:
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. The US Attorney’s office pursued an exceptionally harsh array of charges, carrying potentially over 30 years in prison, to punish an alleged crime that had no victims. Meanwhile, unlike JSTOR, MIT refused to stand up for Aaron and its own community’s most cherished principles.
The co-founder of Reddit and a fighter for online freedom committed suicide, some say, buckling under the pressure of 13 felony charges, including wire fraud, computer fraud and unlawfully obtaining information from a protected computer. Swartz was facing more than 30 years in prison. Compare that to the penalty for 0-15 years for certain categories of rape. In the state of Virginia for example, if he had sexually abused an incapacitated woman his maximum prison sentence could have been less. Swartz acted out of a belief that public information should be free and accessible to all.
The punishment he stood to face was very harsh. Not only was the penalty he was facing far too severe, but it also failed to take into account Swartz's own financial position. Arguably, the basis for society is a social contract where citizens have agreed to give up some of their freedoms and submit to the rule of law. However if we are giving up some of our vital freedoms, then we need to be absolutely sure that our remaining inalienable rights are protected equally and fairly.
The retributive system of justice, where judicial punishment must be carried out by the state for the sake of the law, not for the sake of the criminal or the victim has been an important legal assumption in the United States (source) even though many have argued against such a principle. Judges impose a penalty for a crime based on a law and without enough discretion that would allow them to look at all mitigating factors. Aaron Schwartz was trapped by this faulty assumption, under which he was potentially going to be charged millions of dollars in fines, irrespective of the fact that his worldly wealth was far far less. If a billionaire had committed the same "crime", the burden on that individual would have been far less. In Finland for example, fines are based on a specified percentage of the individual's income, and not a specific amount (pdf). This still allows equity (i.e. the law is applicable to all) but prevents an unfair advantage being given to the wealthy.
On both of these counts, excessive harshness of punishment, and disproportionate punishment, the death of Aaron Swartz is a travesty to justice. As a society, we should work to make our laws fairer and more cognizant of the inequalities among us.