Calling the Silk Road “an assault on the public health of our communities,” Federal Judge Katherine Forrest sentenced 31-year-old Ross Ulbricht to life in prison for his role in creating the Silk Road — the bitcoin-ran online drug marketplace that funneled through billions of dollars for selling heroin, cocaine and crystal meth.
Just last week, Ulbricht wrote a letter to the judge as an appeal for sympathy, writing that “I’ve had my youth, and I know you must take away my middle years, but please leave my old age.” He asked for the judge to issue only the mandatory minimum of 20 years for his seven federal crime convictions, saying that he has learned how wrong he was about creating the Silk Road. He explained the backstory of the site, saying it was about encouraging freedom — and wasn’t designed with a criminal or malicious intent.
"Silk Road was supposed to be about giving people the freedom to make their own choices, to pursue their own happiness, however they saw individually fit. What it turned into was, in part, a convenient way for people to satisfy their drug addictions. I do not and never have advocated for the abuse of drugs. I learned from Silk Road that when you give people freedom, you don’t know what they’ll do with it. 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 an avenue for people to feed their addictions. Had I been more mature, or more patient, or even more worldly then, I would have done things differently,” Ulbricht wrote.
But Forrest clearly didn’t see it the same way, saying that what Ulbricht did “with Silk Road was terrible destructive to our social fabric,” according to The Wall Street Journal‘s report on the three-hour hearing. Federal prosecutors had asked the judge to give him to give him the book, noting the life sentencing was needed to set a precedent for cases like the Silk Road and other criminal masterminds who may try to attempt running illegal underground online marketplaces.
In her remarks, Forrest said Ulbricht was “no better a person than any other drug dealer,” and said his social status should not provide him privilege under the law. In his letter written last week, Ulbricht stressed that he didn’t start the Silk Road for economic reasons, noting that he had two degrees that could have landed him well-paying jobs.
During the trial, Ulbricht’s lawyers had claimed that the Silk Road marketplace was started as a libertarian economic experiment. His lawyers also claimed he didn’t start the Silk Road, but the evidence weighed heavily against their client since he was caught in a public library signing onto the site. And despite his legal team’s many attempts to delay the trial — suggesting that the defense wasn’t given the proper amount of time to bring in the one witness who could have cleared Ulbricht’s name — Forrest overruled his lawyer’s request to both delay the trial, and the sentencing.
Following the sentencing, Ulbricht’s lead lawyer Joshua Dratel called the ruling “unreasonable, unjust, unfair and based on improper consideration with no basis in fact or law,” according to Wired’s account on the trial. The Wall Street Journal‘s report also quoted Ulbricht’s mother, Lyn Ulbricht, as saying her son has remorse for his actions and is “looking at his life being destroyed.” His family, along with a loyal online following, created a site called “Free Ross Ulbricht” in an attempt to help spread the news about the case. The group claims the case is more about Internet freedom and privacy, as some have claimed that Ulbricht was unjustly spied on during the investigation.
“This case opens new legal territory. It will set precedent for the 21st century and pave the way for new laws and interpretations that could impact the future and freedom of the Internet. Bad law could be ushered in that we will be forced to live with,” the group wrote on the site’s homepage.
The Silk Road case has made national headlines since Ulbricht was arrested in October of 2013, mainly because of the uniqueness of the case and its ties to bitcoin — which many, up until this point, had been under the assumption that bitcoin was an untraceable digital currency. Clearly, the Silk Road case proves that even bitcoin transactions can be traced and that anonymity, even on the Dark Web, isn’t always achievable. The use of bitcoin, of course, made it more difficult for the Feds to track down — but certainly not impossible, as the evidence presented in the trail demonstrated.
In another Silk Road-related sentencing last week (May 28) that was less high profile, a federal judge sentenced 23-year-old Cornelis Jan Slomp to 10 years in prison for being the largest seller of drugs on the Silk Road marketplace — an accusation he admitted to last year. He also reportedly accumulated more than $3 million in bitcoins for selling MDMA, Ecstasy, cocaine, and LSD, among others.
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