Transcript: U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz Defends Handling Of Swartz Case 05:31

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Facing widespread criticism and calls for her removal from office, Massachusetts U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz has spoken briefly and dramatically for the first time about the federal case against Aaron Swartz.

Swartz is the former Harvard fellow and Internet activist who was facing federal charges of hacking into an MIT computer network when he took his own life last week. WBUR's David Boeri reports on the U.S. Attorney's response.

DAVID BOERI, BYLINE: She had been out of town, but when Carmen Ortiz got back to the office yesterday, more than 40,000 people were petitioning the White House to fire her. Recently retired federal Judge Nancy Gertner said she lacks judgement. Columnist Margery Eagan of the Boston Herald, declared Ortiz was done, "forever linked to bringing the full and frightening weight of the federal government down on a 26-year-old computer genius."

CARMEN ORTIZ: And I don't think there's any explanation that I could possibly give that's going to make that family feel better.

BOERI: Ortiz answered questions about Aaron Swartz at the end of a press conference where she'd proclaimed the success of a joint state-federal operation against inner city gangs allegedly involved in drug dealing and violence.

ORTIZ: I've had an opportunity to talk to prosecutors who were handling, very seasoned and careful prosecutors, I am confident that the process that was entertained, that the evidence that they had, that the charges they brought, that this case was fairly and reasonably and appropriately handled.

BOERI: Ortiz defended her prosecutors, saying they recognized Swartz was not committing acts for personal gain and that he did not warrant severe punishment. Yet several months ago, the government brought nine additional charges against him, so that Swartz was facing 13 felonies. His attorneys claimed that although the government offered to recommend a six-month sentence, prosecutors would only accept a plea if Swartz plead guilty to all 13 counts, as well as accepted other conditions.

BOERI: Ms. Ortiz, the defense attorney for Aaron Swartz says that you insisted that he'd not be able to use a computer for an extended period after he served his sentence.

ORTIZ: I believe the second part of your question is false. And you've been around this courthouse a long time, David, that we don't demand that someone plead guilty to certain charges or that they do a certain sentence. That is a process that is achieved through discussion.


BOERI: Here's what Swartz's attorney Elliot Peters had to say:

ELLIOT PETERS: I know that one of the conditions that they wanted to attach to this already unacceptable offer was that Aaron not use a computer and that made no sense and that was a non-starter.

BOERI: As Ortiz answered the next question, her eyes welled up and she paused slightly at several points to keep her composure.

BOERI: Would you do anything differently over again?

ORTIZ: I think when anything this tragic occurs you always have to pause and think and review and we do that. We always strive to do our best. We strive to be fair. We strive to be just. And I have to say that I am terribly upset about what happened here and the kind of allegations that have been made because I pride myself in striving to be fair and reasonable.

BOERI: The room full of reporters, staffers and officials was otherwise still but for the sound of photographers' motor drives.

BOERI: Did you know that the prosecution, according to the defense, had been alerted that he was suicidal?

ORTIZ: My understanding is that some issues about a year and a half ago came up regarding his mental illness and they were addressed at the arraignment and that's when they came up.

BOERI: Here too, a disagreement with Swartz's attorneys. Afterward, Ortiz's statement was characterized as "nonsense." The Boston Globe had quoted one Swartz attorney, Andrew Good, as saying, "The thing that galls me is that I told [the prosecutor] the kid was a suicide risk, and he said, 'Fine, we'll lock him up.' "

The press conference highlighted clear differences between the accounts of the defense attorneys and the prosecution.

ORTIZ: What occurred obviously we did not anticipate, did not expect and it is a terrible tragedy.

BOERI: So far, she'd answered four questions.


ORITZ: David, does anybody else have any questions? Because if not, I'm done. Thank you.

BOERI: The U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz, in her first public appearance since the death of Aaron Swartz.

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This program aired on January 18, 2013.

David Boeri Twitter Senior Reporter
Now retired, David Boeri was a senior reporter at WBUR.