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Ideas

Sunday preview | Ideas

Can juries tame prosecutors gone wild?

Some critics think ordinary citizens are the fix for a weak spot in the American justice system. Others think they’re being naive.

The suicide of Internet activist Aaron Swartz, who faced felony charges at the time of his death that could have sent him to prison for 35 years, has provoked an outpouring of debate about the power of government prosecutors. Swartz had been charged with 13 felonies for sneaking into a wiring closet at MIT and using his laptop to download millions of academic articles through the school’s computer network. According to Swartz’s lawyer, the federal prosecutor’s office offered the 26-year-old a deal that would have required him to plead guilty on all counts in exchange for a six-month prison sentence. On Jan. 11, days after rejecting the deal, Swartz took his own life.

Swartz had struggled for years with depression, and it is impossible to know what led him to kill himself. But in the weeks since his death, he has become a rallying point for critics of the criminal justice system who see his story as an object lesson in the excessive power of government prosecutors. By stacking charges as high as possible and wielding the threat of mandatory sentencing laws, the argument goes, prosecutors intimidate defendants and make it all but impossible to turn down their offers.

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