Caught Red-Handed, Aaron Swartz Was Prepping For Key Federal Court Evidence Hearing

At the time of his suicide, Aaron Swartz was preparing for a crucial hearing in his federal criminal case, likely his best chance to thwart federal prosecutors who had developed solid evidence against the Internet activist who was facing an April trial on a 13-count felony indictment.

The 26-year-old Swartz, who killed himself Friday in his Brooklyn apartment, was scheduled for a January 25 evidentiary hearing in U.S. District Court in Boston, Massachusetts. Lawyers for Swartz were seeking to suppress material gathered in connection with Swartz’s breach of a Massachusetts Institute of Technology computer network.

The January 2011 incursion netted Swartz, a Reddit cofounder who also helped develop the RSS standard, millions of scholarly papers from the JSTOR archive. He was planning to make the material public at no cost.

Swartz, pictured in the above United States Marshals Service mug shot (click to enlarge), was caught red-handed by local cops and Secret Service Agent Michael Pickett. After investigators determined that someone had begun illegally downloading material from the JSTOR archive, they traced the hack to a basement wiring closet where they found a laptop and external hard drive connected directly to a network switch. The computer and the drive were hidden beneath a cardboard box.

Anticipating that the owner of the hardware would return, investigators placed a hidden camera in the closet. As seen in the adjacent surveillance images (click to enlarge), Swartz was filmed on three successive days entering and exiting the closet. On January 6, 2010, as an MIT police officer was monitoring a live feed, Swartz--using a bicycle helmet to shield his face--was seen packing up the laptop and hard drive and departing the closet.

An MIT police officer subsequently located Swartz riding his bicycle near campus. Swartz, according to a police report, jumped off his bike and fled on foot, but was apprehended and handcuffed by Agent Pickett and an MIT cop.  

Swartz was originally named in a state District Court criminal complaint charging him with breaking and entering, a felony. However, when federal prosecutors took over the matter, he was indicted on a slew of counts, including wire fraud, computer fraud, and unlawfully obtaining information from a protected computer.

With their client facing upwards of 35 years in prison, Swartz’s lawyers aggressively litigated the case for the past two years, most recently filing a series of suppression motions that were set to be argued later this month.