Internet activist Aaron Swartz was facing federal felony charges carrying the threat of 35 years behind bars when he committed suicide last month, sending shock waves throughout the country and prompting a discourse about the blatant abuse of power among many prosecutors.
Our Palm Beach County criminal defense attorneys are saddened that it took this tragedy to force the discussion on a national scale. It’s truly overdue.
Swartz, 26, was accused of heisting academic and scholarly records, which otherwise would have been available for download for a nominal fee. For this, prosecutors charged him with the highest possible felonies, with several of their interpretations being a significant stretch of the law.
We wish we could say that this kind of thing is rare. It used to be, as judges tended to immediately recognize this “stacking” approach as an overreach and take prosecutors to task for it. No more. It’s now the norm.
The fact is, many prosecutors don’t want to go to trial. It’s expensive and time-consuming. Stacking is their way of forcing a defendant’s hand. First, they pile up all the most serious charges, even if they know some of them won’t hold up in court. They then use that – and all the potential jail time that could be incurred if one gambles their chances at a trial – to strong-arm defendants into pleading guilty to lesser charges ahead of the trial.
Defendants often feel they have no choice, and far too many defense attorneys fail to fight back. It’s why only 5 percent of cases ever make it to the jury trial stage.
In the wake of Swartz’s death, legal scholars have been tossing out theories about how to address this problem. Some have proposed a law that would bar prosecutors from filing a dozen overlapping charges when there is really only evidence the defendant may have committed one or two. Others are gunning to make prosecutors’ offices responsible to cover legal fees when individuals are found not guilty or the charges are dropped. Still others say judges should be given a greater amount of oversight to serve as a check-and-balance to prosecutorial powers.
Another part of this discussion involves that 5 percent figure we mentioned earlier. By funneling most criminal cases into the plea bargaining process, we’ve effectively removed the balance that a jury of one’s peers provides. At the end of the day, the prosecutor has a stake in the outcome. Jurors do not. The fact that they are impartial and stand to gain nothing is a powerful check to prosecutors’ power – and one that is used far too rarely.
Of course there are risks involved with taking your case before a jury, and your attorney should work to carefully weigh those with you. But it’s worth noting in the course of the national debate that prosecutors have largely removed this vital element from our criminal justice system – to their own benefit.
This is more than a marginal troubling trend. This is indicative of a justice system that has lost its way. The cards are stacked against you and the stakes are high. When you find yourself caught up, your best chance for emerging unscathed is to hire a criminal defense lawyer with extensive, proven experience.