In February 2015 Ross Ulbricht was found guilty of operating the online black-marketplace known as the Silk Road. It took a jury just three hours to convict Ulbricht on seven charges related to distributing narcotics, fraudulent documents, money laundering, and continuing a criminal enterprise. On May 29, 2015 U.S. District Judge Katherine Forrest sentenced Ulbricht to life in prison, plus 40 years with no possibility of parole. The government also ordered a forfeiture fine of $183,961,921.
I was present for the trial and the sentencing, as a freelance journalist and supporter of Ross Ulbricht and the ideas upon which the Silk Road was founded. Newsweek wrote the following regarding the sentencing of Ulbricht:
As a federal marshal marched Ulbricht out a side door, a young man in black dreadlocks shouted, “Ross is a hero!” Derrick Broze, a member of the Houston Free Thinkers, came to New York for this trial, part of a group of self-styled anarcho-libertarians who squeezed into the courtroom every day.
Ulbricht’s defense team was stifled every step of the way by Judge Forrest. The judge denied pertinent witnesses and testimony, allowed evidence which painted Ross Ulbricht in a negative light, and overall seemed to be making a political statement regarding Ulbricht’s political philosophy and goals. Before issuing Ulbricht’s sentence, she told the defendant that it is “deeply troubling that you see the law as oppressive.”
Now Ulbricht’s defense team is finally getting to make their arguments. On January 12th Ulbricht’s team filed a 145-page appeal asking a higher court to overturn Judge Forrest’s decision. The defense team makes several arguments in their appeal, namely that the actions of two former undercover federal agents may have tainted the investigation, that Ulbricht’s fifth and sixth amendment was unfairly violated, and that he cannot be held responsible for deaths resulting from drugs purchased on the Silk Road website.
The major point of contention comes from the discovery that two former federal agents stole hundreds of thousands of dollars during their investigation of the Silk Road. The two defendants are Carl Force, a former special agent for the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), and Shaun Bridges, a former Secret Service special agent.
Force and Bridges were assigned to a task force based in Baltimore investigating Silk Road. Force was the lead investigator working undercover, and Bridges was a computer forensics expert working on the case. These men were ultimately convicted of stealing bitcoins from the site and extorting Ulbricht by posing as a drug dealer. Force plead guilty and got six and a half years in July 2015, while Bridges received just under six years in prison.
In the appeal Ulbricht’s lead attorney Joshua Dratel writes,
To a significant degree the extent, and in some respects the nature, of Force’s misconduct—as well as Bridges’s participation altogether—was hidden by the government from the defense (and the Court) in this case until after trial. Contrary to the government’s claims and the Court’s decision, the evidence of Force’s (and Bridges’s) corruption was both material and exculpatory.
Dratel argues that the court “abused its discretion” and denied Ulbricht his constitutional rights to a fair trial by precluding the defense from using the evidence relating to Force’s corruption and denying Ulbricht’s motion for a new trial based on that evidence.
As Wired notes:
Even before Ulbricht’s conviction, Dratel had already asked Judge Katherine Forrest for a mistrial—and was rejected—no less than five times over the course of the trial in January and February of 2015. The appeal brief repeats several of those complaints, including the defense’s protest of Forrest’s decision that Dratel couldn’t cross-examine prosecution witnesses in detail about alternative suspects they’d discussed as possible owners or administrators of the Silk Road. Dratel also reiterates an argument the defense made in pre-trial hearings: that Ulbricht’s laptop was searched with an overly broad warrant, and that his online accounts were tracked with a warrantless pen register that violated his fourth amendment privacy rights. And he criticizes Judge Forrest’s decision not to admit a statement from a Silk Road staffer who had written that he believed multiple people had run the Silk Road under a single pseudonym, the “Dread Pirate Roberts,” implying that Ulbricht wasn’t the sole administrator of the site.
Ulbricht’s appeal says that he should be re-sentenced with a different judge “to avoid the irremediable taint from the improper factors the Court considered.”
In a recent interview with Activist Post Lyn Ulbricht discussed the importance of the Silk Road trial.
This case isn’t just about one man or website. It is going to determine much about how we go forward into the digital age. It addresses some very important precedents and issues that could impact all of us. There is a fourth amendment question, the question of the US seizing a server in a foreign country without a warrant. and the type of warrant they used to seize Ross’s laptop, among others. They used mostly digital evidence in this trial. Whether or not you believe their evidence…it significantly lowers the standard of evidence at trials. Digital material can be created out of nothing. It doesn’t take much imagination to see how this is a threat to us all.
Derrick Broze is an investigative journalist, community activist, gardener and promoter from Houston, Texas. He is the co-founder of The Houston Free Thinkers, and co-host of Free Thinker Radio. Broze also hosts and produces a weekly podcast under the name the Conscious Resistance Live. His writing can be found on his website TheConsciousResistance.com, Activist Post, and other independent media sources.
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