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The federal prosecution and suicide of Aaron Swartz has galvanized Internet activists and prompted attacks by hackers. Now it's dividing candidates in Massachusetts' special U.S. Senate campaign.
Among the toughest critics of the case against Swartz is Republican Senate candidate Daniel Winslow, a Norfolk state representative and former judge. Winslow said the case shows the dangers of allowing prosecutors unchecked authority.
Swartz was facing decades behind bars after being indicted in Boston in 2011 for allegedly downloading millions of academic articles when he hanged himself in his New York City apartment this year.
Prosecutors said he was offered a deal under which he would have spent just four to six months in prison.
Responding to a question in a recent Republican debate, Winslow said there has to be "some sense of proportion, some sense of balance" in decisions about what cases to pursue and how to prosecute them.
"We have to look at the exercise of unfettered discretion by federal prosecutorial authorities, whether it's decisions not to prosecute in the cases of banks that are perceived to be too big to fail or in the case of Aaron Swartz, somebody who was prosecuted with no criminal record, with no intention to make any personal profit," Winslow said.
The case against the 26-year-old self-styled Internet freedom activist has thrown a sharp light on the conflict between those who believe information should be freely available online and authorities trying to enforce the law in a rapidly changing digital environment.
While backers portray Swartz as an ardent supporter of online freedom, prosecutors say his motivations didn't excuse the criminal acts he was alleged to have committed.
Those include allegedly breaking into a wiring closet at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and tapping into its computer network to download millions of paid-access scholarly articles, which he planned to share publicly.
Another GOP Senate candidate, Cohasset private equity investor and former Navy SEAL Gabriel Gomez, said the Swartz case points to what he called the "potential politicization" of the U.S. Department of Justice.
"People don't have faith that the people that are actually in that department are doing things according to the law, that are not overreaching," Gomez said during the debate.
Much of the criticism of the case has focused on U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts Carmen Ortiz. Supporters of Swartz believe Ortiz's office was overly aggressive in charging him with 13 felonies.
In January, Ortiz appeared to fight back tears as she defended her office's handling of the case.
Ortiz said Swartz's family has suffered a "horrible tragedy" and that she is personally "terribly upset about what happened here." But she says she believes the case was conducted "reasonably" and "appropriately."
"It was fairly handled," she said.
A third GOP Senate candidate Michael Sullivan appeared more sympathetic of Ortiz. Sullivan, a former state and federal prosecutor who once held Ortiz's job, said he too had experience with defendants who killed themselves while awaiting trial.
"There's no worse feeling, quite candidly, from a prosecutor's perspective to think that the weight of those circumstances might help drive someone to commit suicide," Sullivan said. "We don't know certainly all the facts. We're not privy to all the evidence that Carmen Ortiz had. I would not rush to judgment."
Sullivan added however, that his office typically would have given an institution like MIT the option not to pursue a criminal case, provided there weren't other victims and it wasn't a crime of violence.
"This likely would have been one of those matters," he said.
The two Democratic candidates have been more reticent.
U.S. Rep. Stephen Lynch sits on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, which is looking into the case.
A campaign aide said Lynch preferred not to comment, but he pointed to remarks Lynch made last month where he called Swartz's suicide "a tragic situation" and said the Department of Justice had been forthcoming.
"It's never fast enough. But it's been a deliberate and responsive reaction," Lynch said.
Fellow Democratic congressman and Senate hopeful Edward Markey noted Swartz's "contribution to promoting knowledge and Internet freedom" and called his death "a great loss."
The president of MIT said this week that the school will voluntarily release public documents related to the prosecution of Swartz.
MIT's computer system has been hacked multiple times since Swartz's death. The campus was placed into lockdown last month when someone called to report a gunman in a university building. MIT later said the gunman report was a hoax apparently prompted by Swartz's death.
This program aired on March 23, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.
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