Criminal Justice

Husband of US Attorney defends his wife on Twitter after Internet activist's suicide


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U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz.
Photo: Department of Justice

Updated: The husband of the U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz is defending his wife on Twitter as she faces criticism for her prosecution of an Internet activist who committed suicide on Friday at the age of 26.

The federal prosecutor in Massachusetts had charged computer programmer Aaron Swartz with 13 felonies for allegedly downloading a database of scholarly papers with the intent to make them accessible for free. News reports said that, if convicted, Swartz faced a possible sentence of up to 35 years in prison. Swartz’s family and girlfriend partly blamed the prosecution for the death, issuing a statement that said the suicide was “the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach.” The statement was cited in Swartz’s obituary.

The criticism apparently raised the hackles of Thomas Dolan, an IBM executive who married Ortiz in July 2011, report the Boston Globe (sub. req.) and Boston.com. “Aaron Swartz was offered a plea deal of 6 months. 6 months is not 35 years,” he wrote in one tweet. “Truly incredible that in their own son’s obit they blame others for his death and make no mention of the 6-month offer,” he wrote in another.

The tweets led to more criticism on Twitter, with calls for Ortiz to resign. The Twitter account was deleted on Tuesday. An Ortiz spokeswoman declined the Boston Globe’s request for comment, citing a wish to respect the family’s privacy.

Swartz’s lawyer said the plea deal called for Swartz to plead guilty to felony charges and serve four to six months in prison. Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig, a friend of Swartz’s, wrote at Lessig Blog, v2 that Swartz didn’t accept a deal because he didn’t want to be labeled a felon.

Lessig said he believed that if the government’s allegations are correct, Swartz’s actions were at least morally wrong. “I get wrong,” Lessig wrote. “But I also get proportionality.” And Swartz “is gone today, driven to the edge by what a decent society would only call bullying.”

On Wednesday, Ortiz issued a statement defending her office’s conduct in the case, Cnet reports. “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,” Ortiz said. “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.”

Ortiz goes on to say her career prosecutors acted appropriately by seeking to enforce the law, though they recognized the penalty authorized was too harsh. That is why they offered a six-month sentence in a low-security setting in plea talks, she said. “As federal prosecutors, our mission includes protecting the use of computers and the Internet by enforcing the law as fairly and responsibly as possible. We strive to do our best to fulfill this mission every day.”

Updated on Jan. 17 to include statement by Ortiz.

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