US Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz is breaking the silence on her office’s prosecution of Aaron Swartz. After extending her sympathy to those affected by Swartz's death, Ortiz acknowledges that there was no evidence that the 25 year-old's efforts to mass-download public journal articles from the JSTOR repository was for personal financial gain. The prosecutor then disputes claims that her office was pursuing a hefty penalty for the hacker and open access advocate, saying "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… his defense counsel would have been free to recommend a sentence of probation."
"At no point did this office ever seek... maximum penalties under the law."
Ortiz adds that "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" — a direct refutation of claims from the Swartz family and Attorney Elliot Peters that the Attorney's Office was prepared to throw the book at Swartz in order to coerce a plea agreement. Peters said of Heymann, "he was very intransigent. It was his philosophy that as you got closer to trial the plea offers only got worse. But the offer he was making was so unreasonable that having it get worse didn't concern me much."
At the time of his death, Swartz was facing a total of 13 felony charges, carrying a maximum penalty of over 30 years in jail and $1 million in fines. Earlier this week, MIT announced the start of an internal investigation into its role in Swartz's prosecution.
The full text of the statement can be found below:
January 16, 2013
STATEMENT OF UNITED STATES ATTORNEY CARMEN M. ORTIZ REGARDING THE DEATH OF AARON SWARTZ
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.