NEW YORK – Hundreds of friends and supporters of Aaron Swartz gathered Saturday in New York City to pay tribute to the free-information activist and online prodigy who killed himself earlier this month as he faced trial on hacking charges.

A hero to data-access advocates but a thief in the eyes of prosecutors, Swartz, 26, was found dead Jan. 11 in a suicide that has intensified debate over how authorities should treat hackers whose goal is to expand public knowledge, not make personal profits.

Friends recalled Swartz as a digital-age polymath and a crusader for the open exchange of information — an “Internet saint,” in the words of Quinn Norton, a journalist who writes about hacker and online culture.

Doc Searls, 65, a columnist and advocate for making computer code publicly accessible, said he met Swartz when the tech prodigy was a teenager and noted that the two “were often generational bookends at conferences we went to.”

“When we’re young we think our cause is a sprint, and when we’re middle-aged we think is it’s a marathon,” Searls said. “But when we’re old we think it’s a relay race. And Aaron was the one you wanted to hand it off to.”

A grandson of activist folk singer Pete Seeger, Kitama Jackson, read a note from his grandfather that said: “These modern times are filled with such contradictions that experts are not agreed on what the future of the human race will be. But we can agree today that it was a tragedy for this brilliant young man to be so threatened that he hanged himself.”

Swartz hanged himself the month before he was to have been tried in Boston. Federal prosecutors accused him of breaking into a Massachusetts Institute of Technology computer wiring closet in 2010 and tapping into MIT’s computer network to get millions of paid-access scholarly articles, which he planned to make available for free.

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 his family, admirers and some legal experts blasted the case as overreaching that drove Swartz to his death.