U.S. Attorney Ortiz defends prosecution of Aaron Swartz

The prosecutor acknowledged that there was no evidence against Swartz to warrant severe punishment

U.S. Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz said Wednesday that prosecutors recognized that there was no evidence against Internet activist Aaron Swartz that warranted severe punishment.

The U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts has been criticized for her handling of the prosecution of Swartz, who committed suicide last Friday.

[ Also read Andrew C. Oliver's In memory of Aaron Swartz: Stealing is not stealing and Robert X. Cringely's Today we are all Aaron Swartz. | Stay ahead of the key tech business news with InfoWorld's Today's Headlines: First Look newsletter. | Read Bill Snyder's Tech's Bottom Line blog for what the key business trends mean to you. ]

"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," Ortiz said in a statement reported by various media.

Swartz was charged with wire fraud, computer fraud and other crimes for allegedly accessing and downloading over 4 million articles from the Jstor online database through the network of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

He allegedly intended to distribute a significant proportion of Jstor's archive through file-sharing sites, according to a federal indictment. If convicted, he could have faced up to 35 years in prison and a fine of $1 million, according to a statement in July last year from the attorney's office.

In discussions with Swartz's counsel about a resolution of the case, Ortiz's office sought an appropriate sentence that matched the alleged conduct, which she described as "a sentence that we would recommend to the judge of six months in a low security setting." His defense counsel would at the same time have been free to recommend a sentence of probation, she added.

"Ultimately, any sentence imposed would have been up to the judge," Ortiz said in the statement. "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 Department of Justice could not be immediately reached.

Decisions made by officials in the Massachusetts U.S. Attorney's office and at MIT contributed to Swartz's death, his family and partner said in a statement after his death. The US Attorney's office pursued an exceptionally harsh array of charges, carrying potentially over 30 years in prison, to punish an alleged crime that had no victims, the family said. Swartz's death was not simply a personal tragedy, but the product of "a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach."

A petition launched Saturday on the White House's website asks for the removal of Ortiz from office for overreach in the case. "A prosecutor who does not understand proportionality and who regularly uses the threat of unjust and overreaching charges to extort plea bargains from defendants regardless of their guilt is a danger to the life and liberty of anyone who might cross her path," it said. The petition had garnered 39,709 signatures late Wednesday.

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