The Justice Department never intended for Internet activist Aaron Swartz to go to jail “for longer than a three, four, potentially five-month range,” Attorney General Eric Holder told the Senate Judiciary Committee during an oversight hearing on Wednesday.
Calling Swartz’s January suicide “a tragedy,” Holder defended the Justice Department’s handling of the case, stating that looking at Swartz’s conduct and fashioning a potential sentence based on that conduct was “a good use of prosecutorial discretion.”
At the time of his death, Swartz was under indictment for a scheme to rapidly download documents from a database of scholarly articles with the intent to make those articles public. He faced a potential maximum sentence of several decades, but under sentencing guidelines would have likely only received “a few years” in prison if found guilty at trial.
As ThinkProgress previously noted, Swartz’ case is far from unusual — although it has received a great deal more attention than many similar cases due to Swartz Internet celebrity. Holder is no doubt telling the truth when he says the Justice Department did not intend for Swartz to spend more than a few months in jail, but it is difficult to imagine that Swartz was able to think rationally about whether or not to accept a plea bargain after reading a DOJ press release that used his named followed by the words “faces up to 35 years in prison.”
Guilty pleas resolved 97 percent of all federal cases the Justice Department prosecuted to a conclusion in 2011 — up from 84 percent in 1990.