The hounding of online protesters to death to further political careers was ruled a good use of the US justice system by attorney general Eric Holder.
Holder said that the suicide of internet activist Aaron Swartz was a “tragedy” but was “a good use of prosecutorial discretion”.
Holder is the nation’s top prosecutor and is the highest-ranking member of the Obama administration who has said anything about the Swartz fiasco. He has been wheeled in to defend the indictment and prosecution of the former director of Demand Progress.
Swartz killed himself after US prosecutors threatened to lock him up for 60 years for downloading many files when he should have only downloaded one. He had done this as a protest calling for university files on JSTOR to be made public. JSTOR files have since been made public.
Massachusetts US attorney Carmen Ortiz, whose office was prosecuting Swartz, said the authorities’ actions were “appropriate in bringing and handling this case”. She has her political career to think of and she had hoped for a high profile hacker scalp to show the electorate. Ortiz had been tipped to be a good candidate for governor or senator.
Holder was testifying at a justice department oversight hearing before the Senate judiciary committee and was facing terse questioning from Senator John Cornyn.
Cornyn says that the prosecution was not about crime but “prosecutorial zeal” and “misconduct”.
Holder told him that Swartz’s death was a tragedy. He was obviously a very bright young man and had a good future in front of him. Of course, he would not have that future if the prosecution had locked him up for 35 years, but Holder said that the prosecution had made a plea offer which meant that he would not have had to go to jail for longer than five months.
Five months in jail without a trial rather than risking 35 years with a trial because a prosecutor wants to help get elected to office is perfectly acceptable, apparently.
The problem was not the prosecutor’s actions. It was the fact that Swartz said that he did not want to go jail at all. This is apparently unheard of in the Land of the Free where you have to cop a plea or else the prosecution throws the book at you.
Cornyn pointed out that it was a little odd that the government would indict someone for crimes that would carry penalties of up to 35 years in prison and million dollar fines and then offer him a three to four month prison sentence.
Holder said that was a good use of prosecutorial discretion to look at the conduct, regardless of the statutory maximums and to fashion a sentence that was consistent with what the nature of the conduct was.
He did not that fashioning a sentence would depend on the political ambitions the prosecutor had at the time and those goals had to be factored into the negotiation process.
We guess that many innocent people would not understand that and kill themselves rather than ruin their lives with a jail sentence.