Fresh questions are being asked whether US federal prosecutors were so dogged in their pursuit of computer programmer and internet activist Aaron Swartz because they were acting in retaliation of an online petition which supported the defendant.
Swartz committed suicide in January while awaiting trial on federal charges. He was accused of downloading thousands of documents from the online database JSTOR while using the campus network at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). The 26-year-old was facing a maximum penalty of 35 years in prison and a US $1 million fine.
After coming under harsh public scrutiny for its role in the case - including accusations that university administrators targeted Swartz and sought his prosecution - MIT released a report in July absolving administrators of any wrongdoing. Critics have also wondered why university officials were kept out of the public eye while assistant US Attorney Stephen Heymann assembled the case against Swartz, even as the suspect himself publicly proclaimed his own innocence.
Using Demand Progress, an organization he founded, Swartz declared that he had done nothing wrong. The digital rights organization, which pushes for progressive policy changes, ran an online campaign supporting Swartz.
“The prosecutor said that, pre-indictment, he had wanted to approach the case on a human level, not punitively. To this extent he made an extremely reasonable proposal, and was ‘dumb-founded’ by Swartz’s response,” the MIT report said.
“The prosecutor said that the straw that broke the camel’s back was that when he indicted the case, and allowed Swartz to come to the courthouse as opposed to being arrested, Swartz used the time to post a ‘wild internet campaign’ in an effort to drum up support. This was a ‘foolish’ move that moved the case ‘from a human one-on-one level to an institutional level.’ The lead prosecutor said that on the institutional level cases are harder to manage both internally and externally.”
The suggestion that Swartz should have silently gone to court rather than exert his constitutionally protected right to Free Speech in order to be fully protected under the law has not gone without notice and criticism.
Representative Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) wrote a letter about the case to US Attorney General Eric Holder, questioning whether the Department of Justice was acting in the truest meaning of the law when it escalated the case against Swartz.
“The implication that the Department ratcheted up the prosecution by moving the case to an ‘institutional level’ after it discovered the petition by Demand Progress suggests that the Department acted in a retaliatory manner, and that it bases its charging decisions on externalities such as an Internet campaign,” wrote Issa, the chairman of the House Oversight Committee.
“The suggestions that prosecutors did in fact seek to make an example out of Aaron Swartz because Demand Progress exercised its First amendment rights in publicly supporting him raises new questions about the Department’s handling of this case.”
Swartz’s attorney Eliot Peters previously filed a complaint with the Department of Justice’s Office of Professional Responsibility, accusing Heymann of misconduct in connection with the aforementioned allegations.
“Heymann appears to have abused his discretion when he attempted to coerce Mr. Swartz into foregoing his right to a trial by pleading guilty. Specifically, Heymann offered Mr. Swartz four to six months in prison for a guilty plea, while threatening to seek over seven years in prison if Mr. Swartz chose to go to trial,” the letter stated in January 2013.