U.S. Attorney General defends handling of Aaron Swartz case

Swartz's family had blamed the government's 'intimidation and prosecutorial overreach' for his suicide

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has defended the role of the prosecution in the case of the late Internet activist and innovator Aaron Swartz, stating that "there was never an intention for him to go to jail for longer than a three, four, potentially five-month range."

"That was what the government said specifically to Mr. Swartz," Holder told Senator John Cornyn, during an appearance before the Senate Committee on the Judiciary on Wednesday.

[ Also on InfoWorld: Aaron Swartz: A life remembered, a legacy debated and Lawmakers pledge to change hacking law during Swartz memorial. | Stay ahead of the key tech business news with InfoWorld's Today's Headlines: First Look newsletter. ]

The plea offers made to Swartz were rejected, he added. In a plea offer, prosecutors usually agree to ask the court for a lighter sentence in return for a guilty plea.

Swartz, who committed suicide in January, 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. JSTOR said Swartz returned the data he had in his possession and settled any civil claims it might have had against him in June 2011.

If convicted, Swartz could have faced up to 35 years in prison and a fine of $1 million, according to a statement in July, 2011 from the office of U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts Carmen M. Ortiz.

Swartz's family and partner said soon after his death that decisions made by officials in the Massachusetts U.S. Attorney's office and at MIT contributed to his suicide, and his death was the product of "a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach."

Holder described Swartz's death as a tragedy and said his sympathies go out to his family and friends. The case could have been resolved with a plea offer of three months before the indictment, he said. After the indictment, an offer was made that Swartz could plead and serve four months, Holder added. In a later offer, the government would be able to argue for up to six months in jail, while Swartz could argue for a probationary sentence, according to Holder.

"Does it strike you as odd that the government would indict someone for crimes that would carry penalties of up to 35 years in prison and million dollar fines, and then offer him a three or four month prison sentence ?" Senator Cornyn, a Republican from Texas, asked Holder during the hearing.

Holder replied that he thought it was "a good use of prosecutorial discretion," which looked at the conduct regardless of what the statutory maximum penalties were, and "to fashion a sentence that was consistent with what the nature of the conduct was."

Following sharp criticism of her handling of the case, Ortiz said in January that prosecutors recognized that there was no evidence against Swartz that warranted severe punishment. "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," she said in a statement.

Cornyn wrote a letter to Holder in January in which he asked, among other things, whether the prosecution of Swartz was in any way retaliation for his exercise of his rights as a citizen under the Freedom of Information Act. The letter has not been responded to yet, the senator said.

Swartz has emerged as a symbol of freedom on the Internet for activist groups. Lawmakers and activists have called for changes in the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, which the prosecutors in Massachusetts used to charge him.

John Ribeiro covers outsourcing and general technology breaking news from India for The IDG News Service. Follow John on Twitter at @Johnribeiro. John's email address is john_ribeiro@idg.com.

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