Ross Ulbricht, the man behind illegal online drug emporium Silk Road, was sentenced to life in prison on Friday by Judge Katherine Forrest of Manhattan’s US district court for the southern district of New York.
Before the sentencing the parents of the victims of drug overdoses addressed the court. Ulbricht broke down in tears. “I never wanted that to happen,” he said. “I wish I could go back and convince myself to take a different path.”
The 31-year-old physics graduate and former boy scout was handed five sentences one of 20 years, one of 15 years, one of five and two of life. All are to be served concurrently with no chance of parole.
The judge handed out the most severe sentence available to the man US authorities identified as “Dread Pirate Roberts,” pseudonymous founder of an Amazon-like online market for illegal goods.
“The stated purpose [of Silk Road] was to be beyond the law. In the world you created over time, democracy didn’t exist. You were captain of the ship, the dread Pirate Roberts. You made your own laws,” Forrest told Ulbricht as she read the sentence.
Ulbrict had begged the judge to “leave a light at the end of the tunnel” ahead of his sentence. “I know you must take away my middle years, but please leave me my old age,” he wrote to Forrest this week. Prosecutors wrote Forrest a 16-page letter requesting the opposite: “[A] lengthy sentence, one substantially above the mandatory minimum is appropriate in this case.”
“I’ve changed. I’m not the man I was when I created Silk Road. I’m a little wiser. A little more mature and much more humble,” Ulbricht pled in court.
Forrest rejected arguments that Silk Road had reduced harm among drug users by taking illegal activities off the street. “No drug dealer from the Bronx has ever made this argument to the court. It’s a privileged argument and it’s an argument made by one of the privileged,” she said.
Silk Road was once the largest “dark web” marketplace for illegal drugs and other services. In March 2013 the secret site listed 10,000 items for sale, 7,000 of which were drugs including cannabis, MDMA and heroin. Prosecutors said Silk Road had generated nearly $213.9m (£140m) in sales and $13.2m in commissions before police shut it down.
Ulbricht was convicted in February after a four-week trial on all seven counts, from selling narcotics and money laundering to maintaining an “ongoing criminal enterprise”, a charge usually reserved for mob kingpins. Prosecutors said that he had gone so far as to solicit six murders for hire, although chat logs cast doubt on whether Ulbricht had been the primary actor in the solicitations and none of the murders were carried out.
Throughout the trial, the defense suggested that Ulbricht was the victim of a complex hacking attack that left him looking like the fall guy. Given the evidence presented against Ulbricht, the pitch proved a hard sell to the jury.
Ulbricht was arrested in the science fiction section of his public library, “literally caught with his fingers at the keyboard, running Silk Road”, said the prosecution in its opening statement. He was logged in to the Silk Road master account, according to the agents who arrested him, and investigators found chat logs and other evidence on the hard drive that implicated him.
After his conviction, the defense argued that the Silk Road was in fact a boon to the health of its clients, especially those who habitually used drugs. “In contrast to the government’s portrayal of the Silk Road website as a more dangerous version of a traditional drug marketplace, in fact the Silk Road website was in many respects the most responsible such marketplace in history, and consciously and deliberately included recognized harm reduction measures, including access to physician counseling.”
Sam Thielman in New York
Friday 29 May 2015 16.02 EDT
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