Update (1/18): Some more information has emerged. First, it’s looking like the prosecution’s strategy was to threaten Aaron with decades of prison time, in order to force him to accept a plea bargain involving at most 6 months. (Carmen Ortiz issued a statement that conveniently skips the first part of the strategy and focuses on the second.) This is standard operating procedure in our wonderful American justice system, due (in part) to the lack of resources actually to bring most cases to trial. The only thing unusual about the practice is the spotlight being shone on it, now that it was done not to some poor unknown schmuck but to a tortured prodigy and nerd hero. Fixing the problem would require far-reaching changes to our justice system.
Second, while I still strongly feel that we should await the results of Hal Abelson’s investigation, I’ve now heard from several sources that there was some sort of high-level decision at MIT—by whom, I have no idea—not to come out in support of Aaron. Crucially, though, I’m unaware of the faculty (or students, for that matter) ever being consulted about this decision, or even knowing that there was anything for MIT to decide. Yesterday, feeling guilty about having done nothing to save Aaron, I found myself wishing that either he or his friends or parents had made an “end run” around the official channels, and informed MIT faculty and students directly of the situation and of MIT’s ability to help. (Or maybe they did, and I simply wasn’t involved?)
Just to make sure I hadn’t missed anything, I searched my inbox for “Swartz”, but all I found relevant to the case were a couple emails from a high-school student shortly after the arrest (for a project he was doing about the case), and then the flurry of emails after Aaron had already committed suicide. By far the most interesting thing that I found was the following:
Aaron Swartz (December 12, 2007): I’m really enjoying the Democritus lecture notes. Any chance we’ll ever see lecture 12?
My response: It’s a-comin’!
As I wrote on this blog at the time of Aaron’s arrest: I would never have advised him to do what he did. Civil disobedience can be an effective tactic, but off-campus access to research papers simply isn’t worth throwing your life away for—especially if your life holds as much spectacular promise as Aaron’s did, judging from everything I’ve read about him. At the same time, I feel certain that the world will eventually catch up to Aaron’s passionate belief that the results of publicly-funded research should be freely available to the public. We can honor Aaron’s memory by supporting the open science movement, and helping the world catch up with him sooner.