U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz, breaking days of silence, defended her office's prosecution of Internet activist Aaron Swartz, who committed suicide Friday while facing more than 30 years in prison and $1 million in fines for downloading academic articles.
Ortiz's statement comes as congressmen issued calls for the Obama administration to rein in aggressive prosecutors. The statement, issued late last night, expressed sympathy for the Swartz family, saying, "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. ... That is why ... 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. ... 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."
Enraged congressmen, incensed over the Swartz prosecution, are calling on the Obama administration to reel in "out-of-control" prosecutors as they frame a bill dubbed "Aaron's Law" to shield Internet users from overzealous feds.
"With all the real crime in the country, it's absurd that federal prosecutors wasted their time going after Aaron Swartz," said U.S. Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.).
Swartz, a 26-year-old Internet prodigy, was facing more than 30 years in prison and more than $1 million in fines for bypassing a paywall to download millions of academic articles, reportedly as a defiant act of Internet freedom, before he took his own life Friday in New York.
"It's a job for the attorney general and president to establish clear guidelines for prosecutorial discretion," said Polis, adding it's a "problem, not only in this case, but also in many cases."
"I plan to continue to pursue that to rein in out-of-control federal prosecutors," Polis said.
Polis said he will co-sponsor a bill with U.S. Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), who posted a draft on the Swartz-founded site, Reddit.com. "Aaron's Law," Lofgren said, would exclude those who violate online services' user agreements from felony charges.
Lofgren said in a statement that the "vague wording" of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act and the wire fraud statute appeared to give prosecutors the avenue to go after Swartz.
"There's no way to reverse the tragedy of Aaron's death," Lofgren wrote, "but we can work to prevent a repeat of the abuses of power he experienced."
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