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Aaron Swartz Death: US Attorney Carmen Ortiz defends handling of case that ended with activist's suicide

Aaron Swartz, the co-founder of Reddit. Courtesy of Fred Benenson/Flickr

Aaron Swartz, the co-founder of Reddit
Courtesy of Fred Benenson/Flickr
(CBS) - The U.S. Attorney who led the prosecution of Reddit co-founder and online activist Aaron Swartz issued a statement Thursday on Swartz's suicide, defending the justice department's conduct.

Read: Reddit co-founder's death spurs debate over computer crime

"As a parent and a sister, I can only imagine the pain felt by the family and friends of Aaron Swartz, and I want to extend my heartfelt sympathy to everyone who knew and loved this young man," wrote Carmen Ortiz, the U.S. Attorney for the District of Massachusetts.

At the time of his death on Jan. 12, the 26-year-old Swartz was facing prison time for allegedly hacking into the online database JSTOR and downloading millions of scholarly articles he believed should be freely available to the public.

At his funeral on Tuesday, Swartz's father accused Ortiz and her fellow prosecutors of driving his son to suicide.

"He was killed by the government," said Robert Swartz, according to the Chicago Sun-Times.

Ortiz acknowledges the accusation in her statement, writing, "I know that 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."

She continues: "I must, however, make clear that this office's conduct was appropriate in bringing and handling this case."

Since Swartz's death, Ortiz's office has been criticized for over-zealousness in their prosecution of Swartz, who was indicted on multiple felony charges. But in her statement Ortiz said, "At no time did this office ever seek - or ever tell Mr. Swartz's attorneys that it intended to seek - maximum penalties under the law."

Swartz's attorney Elliot Peters told The Daily Beast that Ortiz's office "made their position very clear. They believed they had to seek prison time and multiple felony convictions in this case." The online news site reports that Peters said the prosecutors offered Swartz four months in prison if he pleaded guilty to 13 felonies.

The case was set to go to trial in February, and Swartz reportedly planned to plead not guilty.

On Tuesday, Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) posted the draft of a bill she plans to propose that would modify the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, under which Swartz was indicted. She indicated the bill would be known as "Aaron's Law."

A petition to remove Ortiz from her position as U.S. Attorney was posted on Whitehouse.gov on Jan. 12, 2013 and has just over 40,000 signatures.

The Boston Globe reports that Ortiz's husband, Thomas Dolan, took to Twitter to defend his wife and calling it "incredible" that Swartz's family would blame "others" for their son's death. The Twitter account has since been deleted.

Click here for the full text of U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz's statement on the Swartz case.

  • Julia Dahl

    Julia Dahl writes about crime and justice for CBSNews.com

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