Nevertheless, prosecutors piled up a mile-high stack of serious felony charges, then offered him several plea bargains "consistent with his conduct" that would have had him behind bars for a few months at most. Yet if a few months of jail time was a fitting punishment, why bury him with felony charges, rather than, say, slapping him with a misdemeanor for trespassing?
Cornyn opined that prosecutors may have piled on the charges to intimidate Swartz into accepting a plea. "I would suggest to you if you're an individual American citizen and you are looking at criminal charges brought by the United States government with all of the vast resources available to the government, [the prosecution's approach] strikes me as disproportionate and one that is basically being used inappropriately to try to bully someone into pleading guilty to something that strikes me as rather minor," he said.
One inevitable question arises: Why didn't Swartz accept a plea bargain? All he'd have had to do was maybe serve a little jail time -- and be branded as a felon. That distinction would have haunted him for years, both professionally and personally. In short, the young man was facing a choice between pleading guilty, doing time, and being branded as a felon -- or spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to take the case to a trial where, for all he knew, a judge would be swayed by the prosecution's laundry list of impressive charges and throw the book at him.
Really, the point isn't why Swartz chose to reject the plea so much as whether the government handled his case fairly. Cornyn made it quite clear that he was unconvinced. "I'm concerned that average citizens ... like Aaron Swartz -- people who don't have status or power perhaps in dealing with the federal government -- could be bullied," he said.
Swartz certainly isn't the first alleged cyber criminal to face arguably disproportionately harsh justice, either, a point laid out recently by InfoWorld Security Adviser blogger Roger A. Grimes. Alongside the Swartz case, Grimes cited such cases as a cellphone hacker sentenced to 10 years in prison and ordinary kids caught with illegal downloads are being fined tens of thousands of dollars. His solution to the problem: "Update Title 18, Section 1030 of the Computer Abuse and Fraud Act to include damage formulas for various types of computer crime, the intent of the computer hacker (degrees of maliciousness), and the number of victims. As the Swartz case highlights, prosecutors are being given way too much leeway in sentencing," he wrote. "Given the technical nature of calculating the effect of cyber crime, perhaps we need narrow sentencing guidelines to ensure fairness."
One final point in all this: Holder didn't just spend his time before the Judiciary Committee this week defending prosecutors' decision to indict a 26-year-old alleged cyber criminal with 13 felony charges for downloading a large quantity of digital content; he also explained why no criminal cases have been brought against any financial institutions that may have played a role in causing the financial crisis. "I am concerned that the size of some of these institutions becomes so large that it does become difficult for us to prosecute them when we are hit with indications that if you do prosecute, if you do bring a criminal charge, it will have a negative impact on the national economy, perhaps even the world economy," he said, according to Forbes. "And I think that is a function of the fact that some of these institutions have become too large."
This story, "Attorney General's testimony on Aaron Swartz raises more questions than answers," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog. For the latest developments in business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.