The Case, The Goal and Why this Matters
On May 29, 2015 Ross Ulbricht was sentenced to double life without parole, plus 40 years, virtually a triple life sentence. This was based on the conviction at trial that he created and operated the anonymous online marketplace Silk Road, under the pseudonym Dread Pirate Roberts (DPR). The government cites no victims for any of these charges or their other uncharged allegations.
Ross received the maximum for each count. None of the charges accused Ross of selling an illegal substance; laundering money; hacking into a computer; or selling fake IDs. Rather the charge is that he ran a website that permitted these actions. None of the charges for which Ross was sentenced were related to causing direct harm to anyone’s life or property. The charges are all non-violent.
- The distribution of controlled substances on the internet: LIFE without parole.
- Engagement in a Continuing Criminal enterprise: LIFE without parole.
- Conspiring to launder money: 20 years.
- Conspiring to traffic in fake IDs: 15 years
- Conspiring to commit OR aid and abet computer hacking: 5 years.
Approximately two months after Ross was convicted, it was revealed that two federal agents at DHS Baltimore had been under investigation for nine months for stealing and extorting funds from Silk Road, among other crimes. One of them, DEA agent Carl Mark Force, was the lead undercover agent in Maryland and at the core of the Silk Road investigation. He and Secret Service agent Shaun Bridges have now pleaded guilty to a massive corruption scheme.
These agents are computer experts and had high-level access to administrative functions of Silk Road. They had the power to change aspects of the site; gain access to administrator platforms and passwords; to change PIN numbers and commandeer accounts, including that of DPR. They also had the means to manipulate logs, chats, private messages, keys, posts, account information and bank accounts.
The defense learned some of this information only five weeks before trial and was blocked from referring to it at trial, as it was under seal pending completion of the investigation. The defense requested that trial be postponed until the investigation concluded so that the entire story could be presented to the jury, but this was denied. Incredibly, the prosecution’s reason to preclude this information from trial was that Ross should have a speedy trial, and that revealing it to the jury would impede the ongoing investigation. We subsequently learned that the agents were aware that they were under investigation at the time, and had been for months. The investigation would not have been impeded.
We believe this corruption casts doubt on much of the evidence gathered by the government and raises questions about all aspects of the investigation. Yet it was kept under seal during the trial, depriving the jury of essential facts, and Ross of due process and a fair trial. Even after the agents’ arrest the extent of the corruption is not known. There is evidence still under seal and many of their emails remain encrypted.
In addition, agent Carl Mark Force played the single biggest role in the most damning charges leveled against Ross: allegedly organizing a murder (which never occurred). The government did not charge Ross with this at trial, but it remains in an indictment in Maryland, where the corrupt agents were operating. It was also discussed in the New York trial and at sentencing, despite being uncharged and unproven.
We agree with Ross’ attorneys that the trial was far from fair. The jury was not allowed to hear the government’s own evidence, favorable to Ross, or the fact that there was extensive internal corruption. Defense witnesses were blocked from testifying. And Ross’s attorney was hamstrung, unable to effectively cross examine government witnesses. It was a one-sided presentation of only the government’s narrative that precluded much information favorable to Ross.
Joshua Dratel, Ross’s attorney, will file an appeal, both for pre-trial issues as well as the verdict and sentencing. This is not over. We believe the right to a fair trial is an essential pillar of a free society. When a trial isn’t fair it is a threat to us all.
The appeal is scheduled to be filed January 12, 2016.
As we enter the digital age, we are at a crossroads in history. Decisions made now will determine our lives and our freedoms going forwards, which is why precedent and upholding the rule of law is so important.
This case is bigger than one man. Nick Gillespie of Reason called the Silk Road trial “the most important trial in America,” and said it could forever alter how we all use the Internet. He added that if you care about due process, Fourth Amendment protections against illegal searches, the limits of government surveillance, and Internet freedom, then you should care about this case. Precedents set with the Silk Road trial could impact our freedoms going forward into the 21st Century. If not overturned on appeal, precedent set in this case could 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. As Gillespie concludes, this case “may well mark the beginning of a federal clampdown on the broad, governing spirit of the Internet that has made the online world an unrivaled experiment in innovation, freedom, and experiments in living.”
In addition, the Silk Road case is a major battle in the government’s failed War on Drugs. The draconian sentence intends to send a message that the government is doubling down on its destructive and wasteful campaign.
As attorney Scott Greenfield said in regard to this case: This is the birth of law as applied to our digital future. Watch it as a spectator at your peril.
This is a case based almost exclusively on digital evidence — which by its nature is unreliable, impossible to authenticate and easy to fake and plant. This creates a dangerous precedent going forward. It drastically lowers the standard of proof, which makes it much easier to put people in prison.
- The fact that a web host has been given a life sentence because of crimes committed on his site opens the door for criminal liability of web hosts and the potential erosion of a free Internet. Under present law, website hosts are not held responsible in civil cases for illegal actions on their sites. This case could set precedent that cracks open the door to criminal liability for web hosts.
- The 4th amendment requires warrants to describe particular items of a search. It forbids a general warrant – a free-for-all rummaging to see what you can find. This dates back to the American Revolution when the British inflicted this on the colonists. It helped spark the revolution and prompted the creation of the 4th amendment. Yet the warrants issued for Ross’ laptop, gmail and facebook accounts were these same general warrants. There were no limits on them. Instead the government went on a fishing expedition through his private data to find whatever they could. If they had done this in his desk drawers and file cabinets it would be clearly unconstitutional. With this case, the government is saying because it was his laptop, it doesn’t apply. Since most of our lives are on our laptops and phones now, this is an important issue for the digital age.
- The 4th amendment question also extends to whether it’s legal for the US government to search and seize a server overseas without a warrant, or even hack into it. They said that even if they “somehow” hacked into the server, it’s permissible, even though they put people in prison for doing the same thing. By its own admission, the FBI has no documentation of how they found the Silk Road server, which comprises much of their evidence. Without forensic documentation there is no guarantee that the evidence is valid or even that it wasn’t fabricated. The explanation of how the FBI found the server has been widely discredited by technical and security experts, one calling it “inconsistent with reality”; another “impossible“; and another a lie and gibberish.
- Ross’ political views were precluded from trial, presumably to hide his libertarian, free market intent in creating the Silk Road site. However at sentencing the judge used these same beliefs and statements against Ross to bolster the draconian sentence. This is a First Amendment concern.
- The judge made it clear that her extremely harsh sentence was to serve as an example to others in the government’s 40-year, failed drug war. If allowed to stand, this sentence sets a grim precedent for future defendants.
- – To fight for the right to a fair trial, one of the bulwarks of our liberty.
- – To finance Ross’ appeal of the verdict and sentence.
- – To have precedents set in this case reversed.
- – To have Ross ultimately be a free man.
Despite our owing them a huge amount of money, Ross’ attorneys are not deserting him. They are working hard, preparing his appeal . But as always, we are up against the full force of the federal government. We are not the family of a wealthy kingpin. We own no bitcoin. There is no hidden wallet. We are regular people taking on a giant fight against a Goliath.
We can’t fight this alone. Any gift, of any amount will help. Please join us!