Facing sharp criticism for her office’s prosecution of Aaron Swartz, US Attorney Carmen Ortiz said Thursday she was “terribly upset” over the Internet activist’s suicide, but was confident that the data theft case against him was “reasonably and appropriately handled.”
While responding to reporters’ questions about Swartz at a press conference on a crackdown on Boston street gangs, Ortiz became emotional as she discussed the case and the criticism against her.
“I have to say that I am terribly upset about what happened here and the kind of allegations that have been made, because I pride myself in striving to be fair,” she said.
Ortiz, whose office charged the 26-year-old Swartz with offenses including wire and computer fraud for allegedly mass-downloading millions of subscription-based academic documents from an archive system on MIT’s network, has been denounced by critics who have blamed an aggressive prosecution for Swartz’s death.
Swartz had written about his struggles with depression. He hanged himself in his Brooklyn apartment last Friday.
His family and lawyer have said that the government’s refusal to resolve the case unless Swartz pleaded guilty to the charges and served several months in prison was unduly harsh, given the nature of the offense. Swartz had not pleaded guilty and was awaiting trial.
Ortiz said her review of the case had determined that it was handled fairly by “very seasoned, careful” prosecutors.
“I support the process that was done here,” she said Thursday.
Ortiz also said prosecutors had recommended a six-month sentence but that it would have been the judge’s decision to make.
Asked if she would have done anything differently in prosecuting Swartz, Ortiz said the circumstances had prompted prosecutors to ask whether “something could have been done better.”
“When anything this tragic occurs, you always have to pause and think and review, and we do that,” she said. “We always strive to do our best. We strive to be fair.”
Asked whether her office was aware that Swartz was a suicide risk, Ortiz said that it was her understanding that “some issues” had been addressed at his arraignment.
She then ended the press conference.
Ortiz’s defense angered her critics, who said she had not explained why Swartz deserved to be charged with felonies.
“Her account of her behavior is completely empty,” said Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig, a friend to Swartz for years. “She has not explained why the US attorney was insisting on a felony conviction for what was obviously at most a political act.”
Nothing in federal law, he added, forced prosecutors to charge Swartz with a felony.
By Thursday evening, a White House petition to remove Ortiz from office had received more than 41,000 signatures.
“A prosecutor who does not understand proportionality and who regularly uses the threat of unjust and overreaching charges to extort plea bargains from defendants regardless of their guilt is a danger to the life and liberty of anyone who might cross her path,” the petition reads.Peter Schworm can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @globepete.