The lawyer for a Reddit co-founder who committed suicide weeks before he was to go on trial on federal charges that he stole millions of scholarly articles says prosecutors insisted that he plead guilty to 13 felony counts that would land him in prison for decades.

Twenty-six-year-old Aaron Swartz hanged himself Friday night in New York City. In 2011, he was charged with stealing millions of scientific journals from a computer archive at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in an attempt to make them freely available.

Swartz' attorney, Elliot Peters, calls the case "horribly overblown" and says his client had "the right" to download the articles from JSTOR. Peters says even the company thought prosecutors had overreached in seeking prison time for Swartz.

The U.S. attorney in Boston reached by WGBH news said through a spokesperson: ""We want to respect the privacy of the family and do not feel it is appropriate to comment on the case at this time".

The death  of internet freedom activist Aaron Swartz is rekindling a long-running debate about how harshly authorities should deal with well-meaning people who compromise computer systems.

Swartz struggled for years against a legal system that he felt had not caught up to the information age. Federal prosecutors had tried unsuccessfully to mount a case against him for publishing reams of court documents that normally cost a fee to download.

Swartz's family said that same system helped cause his death by branding as a felon an activist who was more interested in spreading academic information than in the fraud federal prosecutors had charged him with.

They said that Swartz's death by suicide was "the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach."

MIT President Rafael Reif said he has ordered an internal investigation into the university's involvement with Swartz.