I don’t have time at the moment to capture my thoughts about the response to Aaron Swartz’s suicide, but I’m offended by the popular simple-minded explanation for his death: the government was prosecuting him, he committed suicide, therefore the government killed him. I’m not offended that his family and close friends embrace of this explanation–were he my son, my lover, my mentee I’m sure I would feel the same. I don’t know anything about Aaron Swartz that I’ve not read in the past week, but clearly that does not prevent me from commenting about the case–with a few exceptions (e.g. Larry Lessig) most of those embracing this binary view did not know him either.
Swartz wrote about his depression. Depressed people cannot think clearly and rationally about why they feel low–otherwise they could reason their way out of their depression. Did the prosecution over-charge Swartz–that is, did it wring every possible criminal claim out of the facts? Assume it did, then ask: how many other criminal defendants currently awaiting trial in Massachusetts have also been over-charged? Two? Two hundred? Two thousand? 80%? The answer is, “a lot”–assuming one could reach agreement on what it means to over-charge. Defense lawyers always think their clients have been over-charged. Prosecutors always think the charges are appropriate. Prosecutors have considerable discretion–which may in fact be a problem, but like most things legal the solution is not to straightjacket discretion.
Over-charging and aggressive prosecution are not unique to this case. How many criminal defendants believe they are being prosecuted unfairly? How many kill themselves because of it? Suicide is not a rational method for solving problems. Should the government not prosecute defendants who are clinically depressed?
I’ve already gone on longer than I intended. The point is that suicide of a depressed person cannot generally be explained with binary “but-for” analysis–a point that Eileen McNamara expresses more clearly than I have in this piece from WBURToday: Carmen Ortiz’s Case Didn’t “Kill” Aaron Swartz. Swartz’s death is a tragedy–because he was evidently a talented, passionate, and sensitive person whose gifts are now lost to the world due to mental illness. But I won’t blame the U.S. Attorney for his death.