Was Ulbricht set up to become another martyr of the Drug War?
Ross Ulbricht, creator of the deep web drug marketplace Silk Road, was sentenced to life in prison on Friday by US District Court Judge Katherine Forrest. Leveling the harshest possible sentence, Forrest not only ignored the man’s plea to “leave a light at the end of the tunnel” through leniency, but throughout the case she appeared to ignore mitigating factors that could have directly affected Ulbricht’s future life behind bars.
Forrest is the same New York judge who presided over the month long trial earlier this year in which the 31-year-old was convicted of all seven counts against him—from drug trafficking and hacking to money laundering and continuing criminal enterprise (also known as The Kingpin Statute). The jury deliberated for just three hours. Ulbricht received five sentences to run concurrently, with no chance for parole (one term each for 5, 15, and 20 years, as well as two for life). He is already planning an appeal.
In a letter prior to sentencing, Ulbricht entreated the judge for leniency, explaining Silk Road was a “costly idea” created in naiveté that he deeply regretted:
“I believed at the time that people had the right to buy and sell whatever they wanted so long as they weren’t hurting anyone else […] Silk Road was supposed to be about giving people the freedom to make their own choices, to pursue their own happiness, however they saw fit. What it turned into was, in part, a convenient way for people to satisfy their drug addictions. While I still don’t think people should be denied the right to make this decision for themselves, I never sought to create a site that would provide another avenue for people to feed their addictions.”
Federal prosecutors also wrote to the court about the “unprecedented scope” of Silk Road, saying around 95% of the almost $214 million in sales were for “illegal drugs of every conceivable variety.” Since the dark website bazaar was taken down, similar ventures have jumped at the opportunity to fill the void. According to the letter, those running such sites were closely following Ulbricht’s sentencing, so the court “thus has an opportunity to send a clear message to anyone tempted to follow his example that the operation of these illegal enterprises comes with severe consequences.” Therefore, is suggested that only a “lengthy sentence, one substantially above the mandatory minimum is appropriate in this case.”
Ulbricht’s prosecution and conviction has been fraught with controversy, as the case ostensibly pertaining to his involvement has actually put Silk Road, itself, on trial. One thing he maintains, even now, stems from the basis of his conviction, which is predicated on his operation of the illicit marketplace under the pseudonym ‘Dread Pirate Roberts,’ which he vehemently denies. Even the moniker itself raises doubt that only one person was running the enormously lucrative site.
Taken from The Princess Bride, DPR was a name used by multiple people, each bestowing it upon a successor when their need to grow rich from the reputation it carried had been satisfied. More credence has been given to Ulbricht’s claim by those who examined Silk Road over its brief existence. Based on communication styles, including commonly misspelled words and persistent typos, they are convinced at least four people had assumed the moniker. If this is the case, even though he was found logged into that identity on the site when the FBI arrested him, one conviction would be called into question as it essentially names him ‘kingpin’ of the entire operation—a charge that brought one of the life terms.
One aspect of this controversy is the involvement of two federal agents, Carl Force of the DEA and Shaun Bridges of the Secret Service, who have been charged with the theft of hundreds of thousands in Bitcoin from the government, money laundering, and wire fraud. Their entanglement with the Silk Road site so corrupted the investigation that Ulbricht’s attorney felt there were substantial grounds for a new trial after his conviction. However, as the pertinent evidence remains sealed with the ongoing investigation into their involvement, there could have been no way to produce anything to present to the judge.
Forrest dismissed the motion for a new trial outright, partially on those very grounds—that exculpatory evidence wasn’t divulged in a timely manner and could not possibly change the outcome of Ulbricht’s conviction. But the evidence in question links directly to the investigation of those agents. It would purportedly prove the theory that multiple people used the DPR pseudonym. In fact, one alternate suspect believed to be DPR was the focus of a DHS investigation for exactly that reason as late as one month before Ulbricht’s arrest. Somehow, in her denial, Forrest writes,
“Despite the attention given to the Rogue Agents issue in defendant’s brief, this Court remains unclear (as it always was) as to how any information relating to that investigation is material or exculpatory vis-à-vis Ulbricht. Either the defense assumes the answer is so obvious that it need not explain, or its omission is purposeful. […] [T]here is no basis for this Court to believe that any undisclosed materials relating to the Rogue Agents would have been remotely useful, let alone exculpatory”.
Joshua Horwitz, one of Ulbricht’s defense attorneys, believes this points decisively to why his client didn’t receive a fair trial: “The Government used the ongoing grand jury investigation of Carl Force to deprive the jury from hearing critical facts about the corrupt nature of the Government’s investigation, consequently depriving Ross of due process and a fair trial.”
Whether Ross Ulbricht was the criminal kingpin the government has suggested is highly doubtful. But whatever your feelings about Silk Road, every aspect of this case—from investigation to conviction to exceedingly harsh sentencing— presents troubling questions about due process. Further questions surrounding how, exactly, evidence was collected from the Tor servers used by Silk Road have called Fourth Amendment concerns into play.
Though he is certainly guilty of breaking the law, all indications point to a legal railroading of the former Boy Scout. It appears likely the government wanted to make an example of Ulbricht, not for discouragement, but as a way to legitimize continuing the contentious drug war to a public that has begun to question its very validity in earnest.
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