Massachusetts U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz responded to criticism of what some called an overzealous prosecution of noted web activist and hacker Aaron Swartz, saying “this office’s conduct was appropriate in bringing and handling this case.”
Swartz, co-creator of Reddit and RSS, committed suicide last week after a plea deal to settle the felony computer hacking and fraud charges against him fell apart. His family then issued a scathing statement about the U.S. Attorney’s “prosecutorial overreach” and his death also sparked a White House petition calling for Ortiz’s removal. In just a few days, the petition has garnered the necessary 25,000 signatures to require a response from the White House.
Wednesday night, Ortiz responded to the accusations. Her full statement reads:
“As a parent and a sister, I can only imagine the pain felt by the family and friends of Aaron Swartz, and I want to extend my heartfelt sympathy to everyone who knew and loved this young man. I know that there is little I can say to abate the anger felt by those who believe that this office’s prosecution of Mr. Swartz was unwarranted and somehow led to the tragic result of him taking his own life.
I must, however, make clear that this office’s conduct was appropriate in bringing and handling this case. 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.
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.
As federal prosecutors, our mission includes protecting the use of computers and the internet by enforcing the law as fairly and responsibly as possible. We strive to do our best to fulfill this mission every day.”
Swartz was charged in 2011 for allegedly attempting to download the contents of JSTOR, a massive online database of academic journals and articles. He faced 35 years in prison and up to a $1 million fine. In 2010, he allegedly used a Massachusetts Institute of Technology guest account to scrape the data. JSTOR is typically only available at academic institutions, but just last week it announced it would be making available 4.5 million journal articles for public use. Swartz’s family and supporters railed against Ortiz and her office partially because JSTOR declined to press charges against Swartz. The U.S. Attorney’s office went forward with the case nonetheless.
Ortiz came under more scrutiny on Monday after her husband apparently took to Twitter to defend her office’s actions. He emphasized that Ortiz was seeking 6 months in prison for Swartz, not the 35 year maximum.
Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, told the Wall Street Journal that he plans to investigate whether prosecutors acted appropriately in Swartz’s case.