Whatever he aimed to do with the data, "stealing is stealing, whether you use a computer command or a crowbar," Boston U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz said before Swartz's death.
But Swartz's family, admirers, and some legal experts blasted the case. His father, Robert, has said his son "was killed by the government."
The digital archive that holds the articles, JSTOR, has said it regretted being drawn into the criminal case and didn't pursue any claims against Swartz after he returned the data in 2011. Days before Swartz died, the nonprofit JSTOR announced that it planned to make more than 4.5 million articles available free.
Swartz had pleaded not guilty to 13 felony charges. They carried the potential for decades in prison and enormous fines, though prosecutors have said they never intended to seek the maximum penalties.
A shaken Ortiz said last week she was "terribly upset about what happened," appearing near tears at one point as she spoke about the case. But she said her office handled it fairly and appropriately.
Swartz was a young teenager when he helped create RSS, technology for gathering updates from blogs, news sites, and elsewhere on the Web. He later cofounded the social-news site Reddit and Demand Progress, a group that campaigns against online censorship.
David Segal of Demand Progress said Swartz "was trying to hack the whole world, in the best way."