Prosecutors Intended Six-Month Sentence for Aaron Swartz

U.S. prosecutors handling computer-fraud charges against an Internet activist who killed himself last week had intended to recommend a sentence of six months, U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz in Boston said.

The career prosecutors handling the case recognized that Aaron Swartz’s conduct didn’t warrant the severe punishment authorized by law, Ortiz said yesterday in an e-mailed statement.

Swartz’s family blames authorities for engaging in a campaign of “intimidation and prosecutorial overreach” in charging Swartz with crimes that carried a potential sentence of more than 30 years. The case has raised questions about whether federal anti-hacking legislation is too broad.

“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,” Ortiz said.

While there are people who feel Swartz’s prosecution was unwarranted and somehow led to his suicide, Ortiz said the conduct of the U.S. Attorney’s office was appropriate.

“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,” she said.

Journals Downloaded

Swartz was indicted in July 2011 for allegedly downloading more than 4 million documents from JSTOR, a fee-based service for scientific and literary journals, through a Massachusetts Institute of Technology connection. He was challenging the idea that access to academic documents should be confined to the elite, and was scared of the prospect of going to prison, according to his lawyer, Elliot Peters, of San Francisco-based Keker & Van Nest LLP.

Swartz’s defense counsel would have been free to recommend a sentence of probation, Ortiz said in her statement. She said prosecutors discussed resolving the case with Swartz’s lawyers.

“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,” she said.

Swartz, 26, was found dead in his Brooklyn, New York, apartment Jan. 11. In the wake of his death, ruled by the New York Medical Examiner’s Office as a suicide by hanging, he became a symbol in a debate about whether the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, the 1986 law under which he was charged, gives prosecutors and hacking victims too much leeway in seeking harsh punishments.

As a teenager, Swartz helped create a technology called Really Simple Syndication, or RSS, which lets Web users subscribe to updates. He also co-founded the news and information site Reddit as well as Demand Progress, a group that advocated against Internet piracy legislation, according to his website. He had written on his blog about battling depression.

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