BY KIM ZETTER
The two leaders of a congressional committee have sent a letter to the Department of Justice demanding a briefing on why the department chose to so fervently pursue charges against coder and internet activist Aaron Swartz, who committed suicide earlier this month.
The committee leaders asked the Justice Department to explain what factors influenced its decision to prosecute Swartz and whether his advocacy against the Stop Online Piracy Act played any role in that decision.
The 26-year-old Swartz was found dead on Jan. 11 this year of an apparent suicide. His death has been attributed in part to the increasing money pressures he faced over his upcoming trial, scheduled for April, and his fear of spending time in prison.
Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform committee, and ranking minority leader Elijah Cummings (D-Maryland) wrote in their Jan. 28 letter that it appeared that prosecutors had intentionally bulked up the felony counts against Swartz in order to increase the amount of time in prison he would face.
On July 14, 2011, federal prosecutors charged Swartz with four felony counts, including wire fraud, computer fraud, theft of information from a computer and recklessly damaging a computer. Then on Sept. 12, 2012, prosecutors filed a superseding indictment with thirteen felony counts.
“It appears that prosecutors increased the felony counts by providing specific dates for each action, turning each marked date into its own felony charge, and significantly increasing Mr. Swartz’s maximum criminal exposure to up to 50 years imprisonment and $1 million in fines,” the lawmakers wrote in their letter. (.pdf)
Swartz, who helped develop the RSS standard and was a cofounder of the advocacy group Demand Progress, was indicted after he allegedly gained entry to a closet at MIT and connected a laptop to the university’s network in order to download millions of academic papers that were distributed by the JSTOR subscription service. Although Swartz later handed over a hard drive that contained the documents, and JSTOR did not pursue a complaint, the Justice Department pushed forward with prosecuting Swartz, with U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz insisting that “stealing is stealing.”
Swartz, who did some coding for Wired and was at one time employed by Wired’s parent company, was reportedly offered a plea agreement that would have had him serving 7-8 months in prison if he pleaded guilty to 13 felony counts. Prosecutors threatened that if the case went to trial they would seek a prison sentence of 7-8 years. Swartz was also reportedly offered a six-month prison sentence in exchange for a guilty plea, but turned down all plea offers because he did not want to spend any time in prison or carry the burden of a felony conviction, which would have restricted his choices in life.
His family blamed his suicide in part on the overzealous prosecution by the Justice Department.
In addition to wanting to know what influenced the Justice Department’s decision to prosecute and whether Swartz’s advocacy work played a role in that decision, the lawmakers want the Justice Department to tell them why the superseding indictment was necessary after Swartz had already been charged. They also want to know how the criminal charges and plea offer compared to those in other cases brought under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, under which Swartz was charged.
Demand Progress praised the committee’s decision to question the Justice Department.
“We believe that a non-partisan inquiry into prosecutors’ handling of Aaron’s case will air important facts, demonstrate the over-breadth of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act — under which he was prosecuted, and might even reveal misconduct on the part of the prosecutors who led the crusade against him,” Demand Progress Executive Director David Segal said in a statement.
After Swartz’s death, the U.S. attorney in Massachusetts who was prosecuting his case said that the actions of her office were “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,” U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz told reporters.
Ortiz also said that had Swartz been convicted, he would have been confined to a “low security” facility.
Protestors have organized a whitehouse.gov petition demanding that the Obama administration remove Ortiz from her job. The petition has garnered more than 25,000 signatures — the threshold at which the administration is obliged to respond to the petition in one way or another.
Activists and law experts have also called for the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act to be revised to make clear distinctions between criminal hacking and simpler acts of unauthorized access to computers, so that all offenses are not prosecuted with the same heavy hand.