Aaron downloaded everything without paying a penny, thereby violating JSTOR's "terms of service" (the rules governing your interaction with the server). People at MIT can download stuff off that server for free but they can't download it to redistribute it, and so MIT's administration turned Aaron into the Feds, claiming that's what he was going to do. The U.S. Attorney for that area of the country, Carmen Ortiz, apparently saw the potential for setting an example. She and her team of assistant attorneys went after Swartz with a vengeance, piling count upon count on in an indictment that accused him of felony theft.
They offered a stunned Swartz a deal: plead guilty to a felony and we'll recommend six months in jail. He refused. He wasn't guilty after all. So then they piled on more charges. At that point, if he were found guilty he could have gone to jail for over 35 years!
I don't know what went through Aaron's head as he put it into a noose that final Friday of his life. I know he was alone, and being alone makes everything scarier and more desperate. Some speculate that it was the case that drove him to suicide. Others say he was overcome by the depression that did, from time to time, plague him. Ortiz actually had the gall to argue that, had he taken their deal instead of stubbornly insisting on his innocence, none of this would have happened.
Such is the country we're living in that a federal prosecutor would imply that someone's death is the outcome of their stubborn desire to exercise their right to a legal defense.
In fact, had the case gone to court, it could well have ended in acquittal or very minor convictions. What Aaron did may have been a violation of "Terms of Service" but he wasn't planning on selling anything and hadn't yet distributed any of it. A jury would have been hard pressed to send this young man to jail for something people do everyday on the Internet.
But these government bullies were playing the odds that Aaron would crack, hand them a lovely legal precedent and serve as a "back off" warning to others who might have similar plans. They knew that, for a white middle-class kid with very little street experience, the prospect of going to jail was a nightmare and for a techie, who combats the inevitable isolation of his or her work by on-line relationships with the rest of humanity, being in a cell without a laptop would be akin to death.
So, one morning when he was alone (and probably at a moment when he felt as alone as a human being can feel) Aaron gave it up and we all suffered an enormous loss. The government people probably didn't expect him to kill himself, but that doesn't change the fact that they drove him to suicide.
Those of us who think about the Obama Administration's policies on imprisonment without trial, detention in what are effectively concentration camps, and the use of slaughter (by drone and army) as a political tactic shouldn't be surprised by what they did. But the question remains. Why did they do it?