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When Prosecutors Go Too Far: Aaron Swartz, Prosecutorial Overreach and Our Criminal Justice System

Aaron Swartz’s suicide on January 11th has sparked great national debate about the power of federal prosecutors, the concept of prosecutorial overreach – and the role that prosecutors, particularly federal prosecutors, can play in literally destroying lives.  And while the nation continues to mourn the loss of this 26 year old Internet activist and computer prodigy who likely was driven to take his own life due to his impending federal trial in April – where he faced the prospect of up to 30 years in prison on 13 felony counts for allegedly stealing millions of academic articles and journals from a digital archive at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology – the focus turns to our criminal justice system.

Much has been said, written and pondered about the role that the U.S. Attorney’s Office had in Aaron’s death.  In a statement issued after his death, Aaron’s  family pointed to the extent that the U.S. Attorney’s Office had gone to pursue “an exceptionally harsh array of charges” to “punish an alleged crime that had no victims.”  The family statement noted that “Aaron’s death is not simply a personal tragedy” but is “a product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach” – stating that “decisions made by officials in the Massachusetts U.S Attorney’s office and at MIT contributed to his death.”

At his son’s funeral, Robert Swartz said that his son “was killed by the government” – and, in an  interview with the LA Times, noted that “charging Aaron in this way displays a complete miscarriage of justice.”  Robert Swartz further told the Times that his son “was hounded to his death by a system and a set of attorneys that still don’t understand the nature of what they did.  And they destroyed my son by their callousness and inflexibility.”

In the tragic case of Aaron Swartz, while what he did was clearly wrong, many believe that the government, and its overzealous prosecutors, did go too far.  Prosecutors, especially those at the federal level, have a tremendous amount of power.  They can damage reputations, ruin lives … and, perhaps in the case of Aaron Swartz, help push some people over the edge in their quest to “pursue justice.”

Swartz’s friends and family have said they believe he was driven to his death by a justice system that hounded him needlessly over an alleged crime with no real victims.  And while there is now talk about “re-thinking our draconian computer laws” as a result of this case, let’s also hope that there will be even more talk about the broader issue of prosecutorial overreach, especially in cases without victims or where the victims advocate mercy.  Not every conceivable charge needs to be piled on top of a person accused.  Not every crime needs to be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.  Not every person need to be threatened with the longest term of imprisonment possible. There’s plenty of punishment in our justice system, more than ever before.  What’s increasingly missing is humanity – the humanity that once provided much needed balance.

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