Aaron Swartz prosecutor defends actions

22:55, Jan 17 2013
Carmen Ortiz
BLAME GAME: US Attorney Carmen Ortiz.

A federal prosecutor who has faced sharp criticism following the suicide of an internet freedom activist Aaron Swartz appeared to fight back tears as she defended her office's handling of a hacking case against him.

US Attorney Carmen Ortiz said Swartz's family has suffered a "horrible tragedy" and that she is personally "terribly upset about what happened here."

But she says she believes the case was conducted "reasonably" and "appropriately."

"I feel that it was fairly handled," she said.

Ortiz made her remarks during an unrelated news conference in Boston. She paused at one point and appeared to choke up.

"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," Ortiz said in another statement on Wednesday night, after extending her sympathies to the family.


"I must, however, make clear that this office's conduct was appropriate in bringing and handling this case," she said, adding that prosecutors in her office "took on the difficult task of enforcing a law they had taken an oath to uphold, and did so reasonably."

Swartz, who at 14 helped create an early version of the web feed system RSS and later worked on the popular website Reddit, was found dead on Friday in his Brooklyn apartment.

He was accused of using MIT's computer networks to steal more than 4 million articles from JSTOR, an online archive and journal distribution service. He had faced a maximum sentence of 31 years in prison and fines of up to US$1 million.

Prosecutors offered him a deal to plead guilty to multiple counts of wire fraud and computer fraud and spend six months at a low-security facility, Ortiz said.

Responding to a reporter's question, Ortiz said her prosecutors did not demand that Swartz plead guilty. She said they but had discussions with his lawyers about a deal in which prosecutors would have recommended a sentence of about six months. She said Swartz's lawyer would have been able to argue for a lesser sentence.

Ortiz was also asked if she knew that the prosecutors working on the case were told by Swartz's former lawyer more than a year ago that Swartz was suicidal. Ortiz said "some issues about his mental health came up" about 18 months ago, but they were addressed during his arraignment.

Swartz's former lawyer, Andrew Good, said earlier this week that when he told prosecutors Swartz was suicidal, they offered to keep him in jail.

In a statement on Saturday, the family and partner of Swartz lashed out at what they said were decisions by prosecutors that contributed to his death.

"Aaron's death is not simply a personal tragedy. It is the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach," the statement said.

"The US Attorney's office pursued an exceptionally harsh array of charges, carrying potentially over 30 years in prison, to punish an alleged crime that had no victims," it added.

Swartz, who pleaded not guilty to all counts, was released on bond. His trial was scheduled to start later this year.

The statement from Boston-based Ortiz was released after her husband, Tom Dolan, criticised the Swartz family via Twitter.

"Truly incredible that in their own son's obit they blame others for his death and make no mention of the 6-month offer," he had written.

Dolan could not immediately be reached for comment.