Aaron Swartz, seen at a 2008 Creative Commons event. (Photo: Creative Commons)

Aaron Swartz, 26, co-founder of the popular Reddit site, a “technology whiz kid” and recently a defendant on federal hacking charges, killed himself in a New York apartment, according to The TechThe New York Times and other media reports.

The news came only three days after JSTOR, formerly an expensive, subscription-only academic journal site, would offer limited free access to its data – three items every two weeks, The Verge reported. It was the cause Swartz faced charges for in July 2011 when, apparently with access from his time as a fellow at the Harvard Ethics Center Lab on Institutional Corruption and from  the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he set about downloading some 4.8 million articles and other documents for reposting.

His argument was that the information should be free to all, but he was indicted on federal charges that could have brought him 35 years in prison, to be followed by three years of supervised release, restitution, forfeiture and a fine of up to $1 million.

An effort in 2008 had tackled the Public Access to Court Electronic Records system, which holds federal judicial documents, but there had been no indictment.

The Times’ John Schwartz wrote:

In 2007, Mr. Swartz wrote about his struggle with depression, distinguishing it from the emotion of sadness. “Go outside and get some fresh air or cuddle with a loved one and you don’t feel any better, only more upset at being unable to feel the joy that everyone else seems to feel. Everything gets colored by the sadness.” When the condition gets worse, he wrote, “you feel as if streaks of pain are running through your head, you thrash your body, you search for some escape but find none. And this is one of the more moderate forms.” Earlier that year, he gave a talk in which he described having had suicidal thoughts during a low period in his career.

Swartz’ family and partner released a statement linking his suicide with the federal prosecution:

Aaron’s death is not simply a personal tragedy. It is the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach. Decisions made by officials in the Massachusetts U.S. Attorney’s office and at MIT contributed to his death. The U.S. Attorney’s office pursued an exceptionally harsh array of charges, carrying potentially over 30 years in prison, to punish an alleged crime that had no victims. Meanwhile, unlike JSTOR, MIT refused to stand up for Aaron and its own community’s most cherished principles.

This post was updated Jan. 13, 2013, with the statement by Swartz’ family and partner.

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