In an emotional letter that may either refocus or amp up the conversation surrounding the tech pioneer's death, the girlfriend of Aaron Swartz has released a post on her Tumblr called "Why Aaron Died" — and none of her reasons include his clinical depression.
Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman, who found Swartz hanging from a belt in his bedroom on January 11, has been outspoken about the "vindictiveness" of the criminal justice system in pushing Swartz to suicide, much like his parents have. The Massachusetts attorney general wanted to charge Swartz with 13 counts of felony for having hacked the MIT database JSTOR, which his many supporters saw as unfair punishment. Nearly a month later, Stinebrickner-Kauffman has come out with the strongest words against prosecutors yet. After declaring "I believe that Aaron's death was not caused by depression," she continues:
I believe Aaron’s death was caused by exhaustion, by fear, and by uncertainty. I believe that Aaron’s death was caused by a persecution and a prosecution that had already wound on for 2 years (what happened to our right to a speedy trial?) and had already drained all of his financial resources. I believe that Aaron’s death was caused by a criminal justice system that prioritizes power over mercy, vengeance over justice; a system that punishes innocent people for trying to prove their innocence instead of accepting plea deals that mark them as criminals in perpetuity; a system where incentives and power structures align for prosecutors to destroy the life of an innovator like Aaron in the pursuit of their own ambitions.
Stinebrickner-Kauffman writes that she was aware of Swartz's depression, but that it did not concern her until the 24 hours leading up to his death. Update: After speaking with Stinebrickner-Kaufman, she has clarified to The Atlantic Wire that she does not think Swartz suffered from depression at the time of his suicide.
Experts caution against blaming one thing or moment as a motive for suicide. Yet Stinebrickner-Kauffman appears to do just that in the new post:
If on January 10, Steve Heymann and Carmen Ortiz at the Massachusetts US Attorney’s office had called Aaron’s lawyer and said they’d realized their mistake and that they were dropping all charges — or even for that matter that they were ready to offer a reasonable plea deal that wouldn’t have marked Aaron as a felon for the rest of his life — would Aaron have killed himself on January 11?
The answer is unquestionably no.
That position makes sense for a corporate-accountability activist whose boyfriend killed himself amidst the pressures of a massive trial that could have sent him to prison. And, undoubtedly, a woman who lived intimately with him for the last eight months had to have know Swartz better than most. Yet, the converse of her question — would Aaron Swartz have died if he didn't suffer from depression? — may lead to the same answer. (Update: Again, Stinebrickner-Kaufman told The Atlantic Wire that she does not believe he was depressed in the first place.) In either case, the tragedy has led to many important conversations about both depression in the tech world as well as the problems with the criminal justice system and hacking laws, in particular. Neither seems to have quieted, especially as Congress has demanded a fuller explanation of the case from the Massachusetts prosecutor.