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Attorney General Eric Holder defends Aaron Swartz case

The nation's top law enforcement officer finds nothing to criticize in the controversial prosecution of Aaron Swartz, who committed suicide months before his criminal trial was scheduled to begin.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder defended the criminal case against the late activist Aaron Swartz today, saying the penalties sought represented a "good use of prosecutorial discretion."

In an appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Holder denied that Justice Department prosecutors engaged in any wrongdoing, arguing that Swartz could have avoided a lengthy prison sentence if he had simply accepted a guilty plea of up to six months.

Swartz committed suicide on January 11 in New York. His family and friends have blamed prosecutors for filing 13 felony charges -- meaning years or decades in prison if convicted -- against the late activist for allegedly downloading academic journals he was authorized to access, but not access in such large quantities. "He was killed by the government," Swartz's father, Robert, said at his son's funeral.

Holder's remarks came in response to questions from Sen. John Cornyn, a Texas Republican, who accused the department of "prosecutorial zeal and, I would say, even misconduct."

The nation's top law enforcement official responded by saying:

An offer, a plea offer, was made to him of three months before the indictment. He -- this case could have been resolved with a plea of three months. After, um, the indictment, an offer was made that he could plead and serve four months. Even after that, a plea offer was made of a range of from zero to six months that he would be able to argue for a probationary sentence. The government would be able to argue for up to a period of 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, um, Mr. Swartz. Those, uh, those offers were rejected.

Senator John Cornyn
Senator John Cornyn U.S. Senate

Cornyn said: "Does it strike you as 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- or four-month prison sentence?" (That's a reference to JSTOR, which did not support the prosecution of Swartz.)

Holder responded by saying it was "a good use of prosecutorial discretion."

Holder's comments echo those of Carmen Ortiz, the embattled U.S. attorney in Boston, who oversaw the case directly. "I have heard some of the claims in terms of being overzealous, or lack of supervision" of prosecutors in the office, Ortiz, who was appointed by President Obama, said last month. "And I think they're actually very inaccurate. They're unfair. And they're unwarranted."

In January, Cornyn had written a letter to Holder -- without receiving a response -- asking about what led the Justice Department to seek such stiff penalties. A superseding indictment Ortiz's office filed last year sought up to 50 years of prison, which is more realistically about seven years with no criminal history.