Boston Criminal Defense Attorneys at the Mahoney Criminal Defense Group Discuss Aaron Swartz and Prosecutorial Overreach
Defendants facing charges these days—even non-violent ones—often become victims of a prosecutorial practice that has grown into a many-headed hydra. The idea is to pile as many charges as possible onto the defendant, make him believe he is facing extensive prison time, and then little by little offer to remove charges in return for a plea agreement. The purpose may be to unburden courts of an unwieldy caseload, but the cost is all too often suffered by the defendant as he becomes a convicted felon and wastes away in prison.
A case in early 2013 serves as illustration of this ignominious practice. Aaron Swartz was nothing short of a genius. At age 26 he created RSS, a computer program that helps publishers syndicate material automatically. He found himself in legal hot water when he downloaded academic documents illegally from a Massachusetts Institute of Technology library. That Mr. Swartz broke the law is perhaps inarguable; that prosecutors overreached in their pursuit of him is every bit as clear.
Federal prosecutors slapped Mr. Swartz with 13 felony fraud counts. He was facing 35 years in a federal penitentiary and more than $1 million in fines. As Fox News reports, not even a murderer receives such a fine, and many serve less jail time. And while Mr. Swartz did allegedly download millions of documents, the library would have only charged him a small fee for them. The tragic result of this prosecutorial overreach is that Aaron Swartz committed suicide.
While U.S. Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz insisted in a statement that his office never sought, nor told Swartz’s attorneys that he planned to seek, the maximum penalties for the charges brought against the defendant, she certainly understood that she was being heavy handed. Mr. Swartz was yet another victim of a practice that is no longer governed by the notion of punishment fitting the crime. Indeed, the library at M.I.T. chose not to seek charges against Swartz—why did Ortiz feel it was incumbent upon her to load charge after charge on him? What has happened to the Constitutional guarantee against cruel and unusual punishment?
It has fallen by the wayside, apparently. “Steal a book, go to prison” seems to be the order of the day. This is indeed troubling news for anyone who is charged with a crime in federal court these days.
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