WH petition to have Aaron Swartz’s prosecutor removed from office rapidly exceeds required amount for response

Josh Peterson Tech Editor
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Within three days, the White House petition to remove the late Aaron Swartz’s federal prosecutor from office has rapidly surpassed the amount necessary to require a response from the Obama administration.

Swartz committed suicide by hanging himself Friday after a lengthy struggle with depression and a long battle with the Department of Justice over allegations of felony hacking — charges Swartz denied. He was 26 years old.

Both his family and friends immediately blamed MIT and the federal prosecutor, U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz, alleging that her zealous pursuit of a conviction against Swartz aggravated his depression and contributed to his death.

Swartz had been charged with 13 counts of felony hacking for allegedly downloading millions of publicly funded documents from the online academic archive service JSTOR in January 2011 while  hiding in a closet at MIT.

JSTOR dropped its charges against Swartz in 2011, but federal prosecutors decided to press forward on the case anyway.

He faced a trial in April, a potential fine of a million dollars and 35 years in prison. Ortiz and her colleague, Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen Heymann, posthumously dropped the charges Monday.

Swartz’s contributions to the development of the Internet made him a folk hero in the tech community, and the petition was started on Saturday January 12 when news of his death first broke. By 10 p.m. EST Tuesday evening, more than 33,500 people had signed the petition.

“It is too late to do anything for Aaron Swartz, but the who used the powers granted to them by their office to hound him into a position where he was facing a ruinous trial, life in prison and the ignominy and shame of being a convicted felon; for an alleged crime that the supposed victims did not wish to prosecute,” the petition reads.

“A prosecutor who does not understand proportionality and who regularly uses the threat of unjust and overreaching charges to extort plea bargains from defendants regardless of their guilt is a danger to the life and liberty of anyone who might cross her path,” it said.

White House “We the People” petitions created after Tuesday require 100,000 signatures for an official White House response. Because the Swartz petition was created earlier, it falls under the old rules requiring 25,000 signatures. (RELATED: White House changes petition rules)

Alex Stamos, the network security expert Swartz’s legal team had planned to leverage as their expert witness during the trial, even came forward on Saturday to offer what would have been his testimony.

“I know a criminal hack when I see it, and Aaron’s downloading of journal articles from an unlocked closet is not an offense worth 35 years in jail,” he said in a blog post.

The Boston Globe reported Monday that federal prosecutors had offered a plea deal to Swartz just months before his death, but the offer was rejected by Swartz and his attorney in favor of a public trial. Swartz’s attorney, Elliot Peters, told The Boston Globe that he worried over Swartz’s emotional vulnerability.

Ortiz’s husband, Tom Dolan, also jumped into the fray to defend his wife, The Guardian reported Tuesday.

Dolan angrily tweeted three days after Swartz’s death: “Truly incredible that in their own son’s obit they blame others for his death and make no mention of the 6 month offer.”

The tweet has since been deleted.

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