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(NECN) - The attorney for an internet activist who committed suicide is on the offensive as federal prosecutors come under fire for how they handled the case.
Twenty-six-year-old Aaron Swartz, who was also a Reddit co-founder, committed suicide Jan. 11 following his 2011 indictment for allegedly downloading nearly 5 million academic articles from MIT's computer network. Swartz's family and supporters say he was driven to suicide by the threat of a prison sentence and the pressure to make a plea bargain.
Martin Weinberg, Swartz's attorney until Fall 2012, says the problem is the sentencing guidelines that hovered over his deceased client's head.
"I think it's a more systemic problem that has plagued the criminal justice system since the 1980s ... Congress took the historic power away from judges to individualize sentencing without concern for minimum mandatory sentencing or in this case federal sentencing guidelines that create a coercive club that has lead to over 95 percent of federal defendants pleading guilty," Weinberg said.
Weinberg argues federal guidelines for sentencing in a case such as Swartz's aren't appropriate because they depend on financial losses.
"Well the Aaron Swartz case was a paradigm. Greed, monetary motives were not in any respect Aaron's objective in doing what he is alleged to have done," Weinberg said. "Instead, he had political and moral agenda, yet was subject to these coercive and even draconian guidelines that threatened to, after trial if imposed, to extinguish half a decade of his life warehoused in a federal jail."
So should Swartz have even been punished?
"Because of the guidelines, the government felt like they reduced it by 90 percent and gave me a plea offer, which was less than six months, when I believe passionately that Aaron Swartz was a person who should've received at worst probation for the crimes that he was facing," Weinberg said.
Weinberg believes the Aaron Swartz case can signal some change.
"Hopefully this provides the seed for some institutional changes in the way federal defendants are dealt with, with a very cruel sentencing system where we've revolutionized sentencing in a way that sends people to jail for decades," Weinberg said.