Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn on Friday wrote to Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. about the possibility of prosecutorial misconduct in the Justice Department’s case against Reddit co-founder Aaron Swartz, who committed suicide last week.
“Mr. Swartz was, among other things, a brilliant technologist and a committed activist for the causes in which he believed — including, notably, the freedom of information. His death, at the young age of twenty-six, was tragic,” wrote Cornyn, a Texas Republican and member of the Judiciary Committee.
Before his suicide, Swartz was facing a trial after being accused by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Massachusetts of breaking into the computer networks of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and illegally downloading academic articles from JSTOR, an academic journal subscription service. His conviction could have resulted in up to 35 years imprisonment and a $1 million fine. However, various news outlets have reported the DOJ was in talks with Swartz’s lawyers to have him plead guilty and serve as little as six months in prison. Swartz was found dead in his Brooklyn, N.Y., apartment Jan. 11.
But questions have been raised about whether Swartz’s crimes were commensurate with the severity of the punishment DOJ was pursuing, and Cornyn believes that the situation “raises important questions about prosecutorial conduct.”
“Was the prosecution of Mr. Swartz in any way retaliation for his exercise of his rights as a citizen under the Freedom of Information Act?” Cornyn asked in the letter. “If so, I recommend that you refer the matter immediately to the Inspector General.”
Cornyn wants to know “on what basis did the U.S. Attorney for the District of Massachusetts conclude that her office’s conduct was ‘appropriate?’” the letter said.
Cornyn also inquired about what role the department’s prior investigations of Swartz played into its decision in the MIT case. Swartz had been investigated by the FBI for downloading and releasing in 2008 about 20 percent of the files in the Public Access to Court Electronic Records, the U.S. federal court system’s paid subscription database.
Cornyn asked if it was “the intention of the U.S. Attorney and/or her subordinates to ‘make an example’ of Mr. Swartz?”
The U.S. attorney has blamed the severe punishments authorized by Congress for the apparent harshness of the charges Swartz faced.
His letter comes after Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., unveiled legislation that would amend the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act to decriminalize violations of “terms of service” agreements.
Under current law, failure to adhere to the letter of the lengthy legalese that websites, applications and Internet service providers ask their users to confirm their acceptance to is considered a form of computer and/or wire fraud that can be prosecuted as a felony, according to supporters. Under Aaron’s Law, disputes over terms of service agreements would instead fall under the jurisdiction of civil courts.