Embattled Swartz prosecutor breaks silence

The U.S. attorney said her office sought a lenient sentence in a low security prison

By Alex Halperin
January 17, 2013 8:49PM (UTC)
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Federal prosecutors have been under scrutiny following the suicide of 26-year-old computer prodigy Aaron Swartz. After a few days of silence, the prosecutors are standing up for their work.

At the funeral, Swartz's father, Robert Swartz, said, “Aaron did not commit suicide — he was killed by the government. And [the Massachusetts Institute of Technology] betrayed all its basic principles,” and the family has called the death "The product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach."


At the time of his death, Swartz was facing 13 felony charges stemming from his use of an MIT network to download thousands of articles from the nonprofit digital academic library JSTOR. The charges had increased from an original four charges: Wire fraud, computer fraud, theft of information from a computer and recklessly damaging a computer, according to Techdirt.

The total possible penalty could have amounted to more than 30 years in prison and $1 million in fines. JSTOR was not pressing charges and it appears to have been acknowledged by all parties that Swartz was motivated by the desire to disseminate information, not financial gain.

After expressing her sympathies, U.S. Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz said in a statement that her office had behaved appropriately and had sought a far more lenient sentence:


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.

Alex Halperin

Alex Halperin is news editor at Salon. You can follow him on Twitter @alexhalperin.

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