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US Attorney General questioned on Swartz

U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder was questioned by Senator John Cornyn (R-Texas) last week over the prosecution of Aaron Swartz. At a Senate Judiciary Committee oversight hearing, Cornyn asserted that the penalties Swartz faced for mass downloading JSTOR articles via MIT’s network were disproportionate to the magnitude of the crime.

“He was charged with crimes that would have carried a penalty of up to 35 years in prison and a million dollar fine. A superseding indictment which was filed would have upped both the prison time and the fines. I wrote a letter asking about that prosecution and raising questions of prosecutorial zeal and, I would say, even misconduct,” said Cornyn.

But Holder said Swartz was never really facing 35 years in prison and that three to six months was much more likely.

“[The] news reports about what he was facing was not consistent with what the interaction was between the government and Mr. Swartz,” said Holder, who added that plea offers were made before and after the indictment, carrying penalties of at most six months.

“There was never an intention for him to go to jail for longer than a three, four, potentially five month range. That is what the government said specifically to Mr. Swartz. Those offers were rejected.”

Cornyn did not give up, pressing Holder further: “Does it strike you as odd that the government would indict someone for crimes that would carry penalties for up to 35 years in prison and million dollar fines, and then offer him a three of four month prison sentence?”

“No, I don’t look at what necessarily was charged as much as what was offered in terms of how the case might’ve been resolved,” replied Holder.

In January, Swartz lawyer Elliot Peters told the Boston Globe that the six-month plea deal was rejected because he and Swartz wanted a trial where prosecutors would have to publicly justify the charges.

MIT has been staying silent on the Swartz prosecution, pending the completion of Prof. Hal Abelson PhD ’73’s analysis of the Institute’s involvement in the situation, which started when Swartz first began downloading JSTOR articles in September 2010. Swartz committed suicide in New York City on Jan. 11.

—Ethan A. Solomon