Justice defends prosecution of Swartz

U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz is defending her office's prosecution of Internet activist Aaron Swartz, who killed himself last week.

Critics, including Swartz's family and members of Congress, have accused prosecutors of seeking excessive penalties against Swartz, who allegedly stole articles from a computer archive at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Swartz's family said his suicide was the "product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach."

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A petition on the White House website demanding that Ortiz be fired for threatening "unjust and overreaching charges" now has 40,000 signatures.

In a statement released late Wednesday night, Ortiz, the top federal prosecutor in Massachusetts, offered her sympathy to Swartz's family but said her office acted appropriately.

"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," she said.

In 2011, Swartz was charged with breaking into a computer network at MIT and downloading 4.8 million documents from JSTOR, a subscription service for academic articles.

Swartz was an accomplished programmer and activist who argued that more online information should be free to the public.

When prosecutors announced the charges, they noted that Swartz faced a maximum penalty of 35 years in prison and a fine of up to $1 million. His trial was scheduled to begin in April.

In her statement, Ortiz acknowledged that there was no evidence indicating that Swartz sought to profit from the crime.

She said that his actions, while a violation of the law, "did not warrant the severe punishments authorized by Congress."

She said her office offered Swartz six months at a low-security prison if he pleaded guilty to the charges.

"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.

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Oversight Committee, has said he plans to look into how prosecutors handled the case.

On Thursday, Demand Progress, a group that Swartz founded, said Issa told it he would send an investigator to the U.S. attorney's office in Boston.

Democratic Reps. Zoe Lofgren (Calif.) and Jared Polis (Colo.) have also criticized the prosecutors in the case. 

“The charges were ridiculous and trumped-up,” Polis told The Hill on Tuesday. “It's absurd that he was made a scapegoat."

Lofgren said the government's handling of the case was "pretty outrageous" and that prosecutors were "way out of line." 

She is working on legislation that would curtail the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, the law that Swartz was accused of violating.

Swartz photo courtesy of Sage Ross via Creative Commons.