US Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz broke her silence late Wednesday night and defended her office’s actions against Aaron Swartz, the open information advocate who took his life last week while facing federal charges for hacking into MIT’s computer network.
Ortiz, who charged the 26-year-old Swartz with offenses including wire and computer fraud, has faced a firestorm of criticism in the wake of Swartz’s hanging himself inside his Brooklyn, N.Y., apartment, on Friday.
After declining to discuss the case for days, Ortiz, in a statement released late Wednesday night, said, “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.”
Elliot Peters, a lawyer for Swartz, responded sharply to Ortiz’s statement early Thursday morning.
“Thirteen felonies and six months in jail was never a fair outcome for Aaron,” Peters wrote in an e-mail. “And the charges that Aaron was involved in a fraud to obtain JSTOR’s ‘money or property’ should not have been brought. Ms. Ortiz, you blew it, tragically.”
Swartz, who had written about his history with depression, faced federal charges that he used MIT’s network to download millions of academic articles from a subscription database.
Ortiz, in her statement, said that the prosecutors trying the case recognized there was no evidence that Swartz committed his alleged crimes for financial gain and that, while a violation of the law, they did not warrant the “severe punishments” authorized by Congress. She noted that her office never sought the maximum penalties for the charges.
“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 a judge of six months in a low security setting.”
At the same time, Ortiz said, Swartz’s lawyers could have recommended a sentence of probation, and any final sentence imposed would have been up to the judge.
“As federal prosecutors, our mission includes protecting the use of computers and the Internet by enforcing the law as fairly and responsibly as possible,” Ortiz said. “We strive to do our best to fulfill this mission every day.”
Her office released the statement shortly before 10:45 p.m. on Wednesday, and a spokeswoman did not respond directly when asked why it was not released earlier.
Swartz’s family has blamed federal prosecutors for his death, saying his suicide was the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach.
According to lawyers who were defending Swartz, prosecutors had insisted that he plead guilty to 13 felony charges and serve several months in prison. Swartz had rejected the offer, and his trial was expected to begin this spring.
At Swartz’s funeral Tuesday, his father, Robert Swartz, said his son was “killed by the government,” according to published reports.
By Wednesday evening, a White House petition to remove Ortiz from office had received more than 38,000 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 read.
Ortiz’s husband, Thomas J. Dolan, also drew sharp criticism this week after defending Ortiz on Twitter. In one message posted Monday, Dolan wrote: “Truly incredible that in their own son’s obit they blame others for his death and make no mention of the 6-month offer.”
The message drew a sharp response, and by Tuesday afternoon Dolan’s account had been deleted.Peter Schworm can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @globepete.