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Power Over Life And Death

A brilliant young man killed himself. The defendant in a federal prosecution for downloading nearly 5 million articles from an organization whose mission is “to foster widespread access to the world’s body of scholarly knowledge,” his situation was clearly more than he could bear. The “victim” settled all civil claims against him this past summer after he returned the data he had in his possession. The government went ahead with prosecution anyway, reasoning as follows:

Stealing is stealing, whether you use a computer command or a crowbar, and whether you take documents, data or dollars.

His family’s statement contained the following:

Aaron’s death is not simply a personal tragedy. It is the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach.

Aaron and his family learned in the hardest imaginable way a truth that every marginally okay criminal defense learns after a very short time in the trenches.

People aren’t crimes. People are people, and the stress that the rest of us feel because we’re overworked or worried about money or trying to figure out some way to make ourselves feel important or validate our place in the world isn’t jack shit compared to the stress we’d be feeling if we were in our clients’ shoes for even one second.

Don’t fool yourself. When’s the last time someone tried to take your life, stick you in a cage, take your livelihood, or brand you a scourge on society for the rest of your life?

I’ve mused before about prosecutors with blood on their hands. I should muse more often because it’s important. This passage always stood out to me in Sunday school:

For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required; and to whom men have committed much, of him they will ask the more.

There are a few things I wish every prosecutor understood, and I wouldn’t have much to write if every prosecutor and many judges considered a few simple things before doing what they believe to be their jobs.

No matter where you practice or how lowly and mundane you think you slavish pursuit of convictions might be, you should understand that you wield power that would break you. You wield power that would break your father, your brother, or your son.

Do you respect that? Do you consider that before you set yourself to potentially destroy the hopes and dreams and maybe even the life of another human being?

H/T Antonin I. Pribetic and Scott Greenfield, who writes about Aaron Swartz here (and previously here).

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