Attorney General Eric Holder told the Senate Judiciary Committee that the Aaron Swartz case was “[a] good use of prosecutorial discretion.” Swartz, co-founder of Reddit, a social news and entertainment bulletin board and an internet phenom who committed suicide while awaiting trial on thirteen felonies with a maximun sentence of 50 years for copying academic articles belonging to JSTOR off of MIT’s computers. While perhaps his plan to make the articles available to the public was not legal, Swartz, as a Harvard faculty member had legal access to the articles on the MIT computer system. He did not plan to make any money off the operation and his sole purpose seems to have been to make the professorial knowledge available to the public.
Prior to committing suicide Swartz turned down a government offer that would have him do only a couple of months in jail. According to Holder if he had gone to trial and had been convicted the government would have requested that he be sentenced to seven years. But under the Federal system the sentence is up to the judge who could have given him up to 50 years.
His family and many people in the internet community thought he had been seriously overcharged and that nothing that he did warranted anywhere near a 50 year (or a 7 year) sentence. Swartz refused to take any offer that involved jail or prison time.
The problem with the government’s position, contrary to Holder’s statement, is that it forces Swartz and other defendants facing significant amounts of time for relatively minor crimes is that it forces all but the foolhardy to plead guilty whether they are guilty or not. While I tell all of my clients that they should not plead guilty unless they are guilty I can understand when a client does not risk the vagaries of a trial and pleads guilty when the government offers six months when losing at trial could result in a 50 year sentence. Very few clients turn down a six month plea offer with five years or 25 years or 50 years hanging over their head.