Open Letter to My Senators and Representative Re: Aaron Swartz

Dear [Decision Maker],

I write to you to share a very sad piece of news, and to ask that you work to address the injustice behind this tragedy to ensure something like it doesn’t happen again. On January 11, 2013, Aaron Swartz took his own life. Aaron was young and full of talent: at 26, he was just a few months older than I am, but had contributed a great deal to our world. Most notable were technologies like RSS, a key building block for services like today’s Google Reader. Aaron’s death comes on the second anniversary of the decision by Carmen M. Ortiz, U.S. Attorney for the District of Massachusetts to charge him for the purported “crime” of downloading and republishing public-domain articles from academic databases. Aaron’s premature death is as senseless as the prosecution against him, and its timing is a loud and clear indication of the need to protect other innocent people from prosecutorial misconduct.

Notably, the prosecutor’s decision to charge Aaron was in opposition to the wishes of the allegedly injured party, and based on shaky legal reasoning. Harvard Law Professor Lawrence Lessig sums up the U.S. Attorney’s behavior toward Aaron: bullying backed by the full legal weight of the United States. You can read more about it here from Mr. Lessig and from the New York Times:

The misguided prosecution of Aaron Swartz, and the prosecutor’s vicious attacks on Aaron’s reputation, contributed to his untimely death and cost America a wonderful talent. I am incensed to find that this prosecutor will face neither civil nor criminal penalties for misconduct, despite Aaron’s death. Thanks to the concept of “qualified immunity”, prosecutors are free to make essentially any claim or statement they like to the public in their official capacities, so long as that statement is not an outright lie.

We are in a connected era, and news rapidly spreads nationwide. Prosecutors’ claims often receive wide airplay and are perceived as inherently credible. Today, merely being charged with a crime can be devastating. Prosecutorial attacks on defendants’ character not only hinder said defendants’ constitutionally-guaranteed right to a fair trial, but are ruinous to their reputation. Aaron Swartz died under a presumption of innocence, but you’d never know it from the statements on the matter by U.S. Attorney Ortiz.

Claims of the innocence or guilt of those accused of crimes belong in courts of law, not press releases and media interviews. I must ask that you utilize the full power of your office to ensure that U.S. Attorneys serve their mandate as protectors of justice, rather than scoring political points by attacking the character of innocent people with trumped up charges.

Bar prosecutors from making official statements as to the guilt of any person, or asserting facts of the case that would reasonably negatively prejudice people as to the accused’s guilt or innocence. Establish a regime of meaningful penalties for violations, and an appropriate process for relief: injunctive relief; dismissal of cases or enjoinment of future charges; statutory civil liability; and professional penalties like removal from office or disbarment are in order. I understand that protecting prosecutorial independence is important, and I am careful to allow for that in my request. Ultimately, I believe some infringement upon the liberties of prosecutors — people professionally responsible for the administration of justice and held in high regard nationwide — is warranted to protect the due process rights of the accused, and for us to understand that accused criminals are still human beings with rights to be protected.

Please let me know what action you intend to take to address this issue. I look forward to your prompt reply.


Matthew Murphy


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