Five days after the death of Aaron Swartz, the widely-heralded computer programmer, US Attorney Carmen Ortiz, who led the prosecution against him has broken her silence and defended the efforts of authorities on the case against him.

Ortiz has been widely criticized for using the case in order to make an example of Swartz, whose crime was downloading millions of journals from academic website JSTOR with a view to making them available to the public. Many have claimed that the pressure of a long stretch in prison, or large fine, led 26 year-old Swartz — a co-founder of Reddit and pioneer of the RSS standard — to take his own life last weekend. Indeed, an online petition to the White House seeking the removal of Ortiz from office has raised almost 40,000 ‘signatures’ so far.

In her statement, Ortiz expresses her “heartfelt sympathy” for the loss of Swartz before moving on to defend the prosecution’s efforts as “appropriate in bringing and handling” the case against the programmer and entrepreneur.

In a key passage, Ortiz responds to claims that the pressure of a strong punishment contributed to Swartz’ actions. The US Attorney says that the prosecution was not intending to seek “maximum penalties under the law”, nor had it communicated such views to Swartz or his legal team. Ortiz claims that her office was fully aware that Swartz was not motivated by financial gain and thus its stance on his punishment “matched” his crime — with six months of probation its recommended sentence.

The prosecutors recognized that there was no evidence against Mr. Swartz indicating that he committed his acts for personal financial gain, and they recognized that his conduct – while a violation of the law – did not warrant the severe punishments authorized by Congress and called for by the Sentencing Guidelines in appropriate cases. That is why in the discussions with his counsel about a resolution of the case this office sought an appropriate sentence that matched the alleged conduct – a sentence that we would recommend to the judge of six months in a low security setting. While at the same time, his defense counsel would have been free to recommend a sentence of probation. Ultimately, any sentence imposed would have been up to the judge. At no time did this office ever seek – or ever tell Mr. Swartz’s attorneys that it intended to seek – maximum penalties under the law.

It isn’t clear what Ortiz will make of papers, via Techdirt, that show that prior to his death Swartz was facing no fewer than 13 felony counts: wire fraud – 2 counts, computer fraud – 5 counts, unlawfully obtaining information from a protected computer – 5 counts and recklessly damaging a protected computer – 1 count. The cumulative sum of those charges was estimated at a 35-year prison sentence and more than $1 million in fines — that certainly doesn’t appear “appropriate” given the non-financial motives that Ortiz directly mentions.

MIT this week announced it will conduct a full inquiry into the events that led to the tragedy. The school has come under fire from some quarters that are critical of the way that the school responded in the aftermath of the Swartz-JSTOR allegation. An official statement from the family and partner Swartz pointed blame at the MIT and Ortiz’ office, saying:

Aaron’s death is not simply a personal tragedy. It is the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach. Decisions made by officials in the Massachusetts U.S. Attorney’s office and at MIT contributed to his death.

Full charges have since been dropped but, now that Ortiz has emerged to explain her position, it seems unlikely that things will simmer down just yet. The US Attorney’s full statement is below, via Boston Business Journal.

As a parent and a sister, I can only imagine the pain felt by the family and friends of Aaron Swartz, and I want to extend my heartfelt sympathy to everyone who knew and loved this young man. I know that there is little I can say to abate the anger felt by those who believe that this office’s prosecution of Mr. Swartz was unwarranted and somehow led to the tragic result of him taking his own life.

I must, however, make clear that this office’s conduct was appropriate in bringing and handling this case. The career prosecutors handling this matter took on the difficult task of enforcing a law they had taken an oath to uphold, and did so reasonably. The prosecutors recognized that there was no evidence against Mr. Swartz indicating that he committed his acts for personal financial gain, and they recognized that his conduct – while a violation of the law – did not warrant the severe punishments authorized by Congress and called for by the Sentencing Guidelines in appropriate cases. That is why in the discussions with his counsel about a resolution of the case this office sought an appropriate sentence that matched the alleged conduct – a sentence that we would recommend to the judge of six months in a low security setting. While at the same time, his defense counsel would have been free to recommend a sentence of probation. Ultimately, any sentence imposed would have been up to the judge. At no time did this office ever seek – or ever tell Mr. Swartz’s attorneys that it intended to seek – maximum penalties under the law.

As federal prosecutors, our mission includes protecting the use of computers and the Internet by enforcing the law as fairly and responsibly as possible. We strive to do our best to fulfill this mission every day.

Related: Anonymous hacks MIT web pages in tribute to Aaron Swartz

Headline image via  peretzp / Flickr