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Aaron Swartz Prosecutor Defends Her Office

Max 'Beast from the East' Smolaks covers open source, public sector, startups and technology of the future at TechWeekEurope. If you find him looking lost on the streets of London, feed him coffee and sugar.

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Carmen Ortiz says she recommended a reduced sentence of six months in a low security setting

The US attorney for Massachusetts Carmen Ortiz has released a statement late on Wednesday, defending the conduct of her office in the case of Aaron Swartz. According to Ortiz, prosecution recommended a six month sentence instead of 35 years, and shouldn’t be held accountable for his death.

Internet freedom activist Aaron Swartz, co-creator of RSS feed format and co-founder of Reddit social news platform, took his own life last Friday, aged just 26. He was facing trial for alleged copyright infringement, and many of his supporters blame the US justice system for pushing him into suicide.

On Wednesday, a petition that demands resignation of Ortiz reached 25,000 signatures, which means the White House will have to issue an official response.

The grinding wheels of justice

In 2011, Swartz was arrested by federal authorities, who accused him of downloading excessive amounts of material from the academic article resource JSTOR, in protest at the restrictions it placed on access to valuable research. JSTOR settled its dispute with Swartz later that year, but the Department of Justice continued to pursue the case.

The talented programmer had been struggling with depression for many years – a fact pointed out by his lawyer Andrew Good, who claims that he warned prosecutors about suicide risk.

However, Ortiz maintains that she and her office had nothing to do with Swartz’s death. According to her statement, in this case prosecution actually recommended a six month sentence in a minimal security prison, instead of a 35 year penalty suggested under US law.

At the same time, Oritz says that the defence council would have been free to reduce the sentence to probation. Ultimately, the sentencing would be up to the judge.

“The prosecutors recognized that there was no evidence against Mr. Swartz indicating that he committed his acts for personal financial gain, and they recognized that his conduct – while a violation of the law – did not warrant the severe punishments authorized by Congress and called for by the Sentencing Guidelines in appropriate cases,” wrote Oritz.

“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 added.

Some of Swartz’s supporters also question the position of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the operator of JSTOR. After the programmer’s death, MIT had launched an internal investigation to establish its role in the case.

Following Swartz’s death, federal judge Nathaniel Gorton dismissed the charges against him. Meanwhile, member of the House of Representatives Zoe Lofgren has introduced the ‘Aaron’s Law’ bill, to exclude Terms of Service violations from the 1984 Computer Fraud and Abuse Act and from the wire fraud statute.

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