US Attorney defends Aaron Swartz prosecution, denies huge penalty threats

Jan 17, 2013
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The US Attorney overseeing Aaron Swartz's trial has responded to criticisms of the prosecution and allegations that it prompted Swartz's suicide, arguing that the likely outcome of the case was far less dramatic than the $1m fine and 35 year prison term rumored. In an official statement, US Attorney Carmen Ortiz opens by extending "heartfelt sympathy" for Swartz's family and friends, but insists that not only did the prosecutors involved take on "the difficult task of enforcing a law they had taken an oath to uphold, and did so reasonably" but that Swartz was offered a far more lenient plee bargain than has widely been suggested.

In fact, Ortiz writes, "the prosecutors recognized that there was no evidence against Mr. Swartz indicating that he committed his acts for personal financial gain, and they recognized that his conduct - while a violation of the law - did not warrant the severe punishments authorized by Congress and called for by the Sentencing Guidelines in appropriate cases."

Instead of the maximum penalty - which amounts to up to $1m in fines and up to 35 years in prison - the prosecution supposedly felt "six months in a low security setting" was more appropriate, Ortiz says. In fact, suggestions that Swartz was threatened into suicidal behavior with outlandish punishments is unfounded, she continues. "At no time did this office ever seek - or ever tell Mr. Swartz's attorneys that it intended to seek - maximum penalties under the law" the US Attorney insists.

Earlier this week, the US District Court posthumously dropped the case against Swartz.

Whether Ortiz's comments will diffuse the growing sense of anger at the prosecution for what has been portrayed as hounding the open-data activist to his death is unclear. Lawrence Lessig's piece "Prosecutor as Bully" is unstinting in its criticism, while Rep. Zoe Lofgren took to Reddit to announce "Aaron's Law," a change to the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act that would [pdf link] remove the elements Swartz was prosecuted on.

STATEMENT OF UNITED STATES ATTORNEY CARMEN M. ORTIZ REGARDING THE DEATH OF AARON SWARTZ

As a parent and a sister, I can only imagine the pain felt by the family and friends of Aaron Swartz, and I want to extend my heartfelt sympathy to everyone who knew and loved this young man. I know that there is little I can say to abate the anger felt by those who believe that this office's prosecution of Mr. Swartz was unwarranted and somehow led to the tragic result of him taking his own life.

I must, however, make clear that this office's conduct was appropriate in bringing and handling this case. The career prosecutors handling this matter took on the difficult task of enforcing a law they had taken an oath to uphold, and did so reasonably. The prosecutors recognized that there was no evidence against Mr. Swartz indicating that he committed his acts for personal financial gain, and they recognized that his conduct - while a violation of the law - did not warrant the severe punishments authorized by Congress and called for by the Sentencing Guidelines in appropriate cases. That is why in the discussions with his counsel about a resolution of the case this office sought an appropriate sentence that matched the alleged conduct - a sentence that we would recommend to the judge of six months in a low security setting. While at the same time, his defense counsel would have been free to recommend a sentence of probation. Ultimately, any sentence imposed would have been up to the judge. At no time did this office ever seek - or ever tell Mr. Swartz's attorneys that it intended to seek - maximum penalties under the law.

As federal prosecutors, our mission includes protecting the use of computers and the Internet by enforcing the law as fairly and responsibly as possible. We strive to do our best to fulfill this mission every day.

[via Boston Business Journal] [Image credit: CreativeCommons]


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