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Attorney General Holder defends Swartz case as 'a good use of prosecutorial discretion'

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Attorney General Eric Holder has defended the Justice Department's treatment of Aaron Swartz, saying that it was an example of "a good use of prosecutorial discretion." In a Senate hearing today, John Cornyn (R-TX) asked Holder for a response to his questions about Swartz's prosecution for copying articles from JSTOR — he's previously suggested that the Justice Department overzealously prosecuted Swartz as retaliation for a previous case or to "make an example" of him. In response, Holder said that protests have focused too heavily on the heavy jail sentence Swartz faced, and that prosecutors never intended him to spend more than a few months in prison.

"These news reports about what he was actually facing are not consistent with the interaction was between the government and Mr. Swartz," Holder said. "A plea offer was made to him of three months before the indictment. This case could have been resolved with a plea of three months." Later offers expanded that to four or six months, but "There was never an intention for him to go to jail for longer than a three, four, potentially five-month range. That is what the government said specifically to Mr. Swartz, and those offers were rejected." Cornyn pressed on, asking whether Holder "found it odd to indict someone for crimes that would carry penalties of up to 35 years in prison and million-dollar fines and then offer him a three- or four-month prison sentence."

"There was never an intention for him to go to jail for longer than a three, four, potentially five-month range."

"I think that's a good use of prosecutorial discretion," Holder responded, "to look at the conduct regardless of what the statutory maximums were and to fashion a sentence that was consistent with what the nature of the conduct was... I don't necessarily look at what was charged as much as what was offered." Critics of the prosecution contend that even if a relatively lenient plea bargain was offered, Swartz was being pushed into pleading guilty by inappropriately long potential jail time under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.

Besides Cornyn, several other members of Congress have asked for a statement or investigation on the Swartz's prosecution, which ended with his suicide in January. Representative Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) has proposed an amendment to the CFAA, attempting to prevent prosecutors from imposing what she calls "outlandishly severe penalties" in the future. More criticism has focused on the Justice Department's decision to go forward with a case despite a lack of interest from JSTOR, the "victim" of Swartz's hack. Holder has said he will submit a formal written statement to Cornyn, and a video of the hearing can be found below courtesy of Wired.