One-page Overview

Ross’s case encompasses a multitude of issues that will set precedent for our digital future. It is also a revealing story of how the U.S. government prosecutes people, and tramples on privacy and constitutional protections in the process.

Silk Road was an e-commerce website with an emphasis on user privacy. Using the cryptocurrency Bitcoin on the Tor browser, people anonymously exchanged a variety of goods, both legal and illegal, including drugs (most often small amounts of cannabis).

A few months after its launch, Senator Chuck Schumer called for a federal investigation into Silk Road. It was permeated by the schemes of corrupt federal agents and by a power struggle among competing law enforcement agencies that derailed the investigation.

The government violated Ross’s Fourth Amendment privacy rights before, during, and after his arrest, and repeatedly lied to the court about their investigation. The prosecutors, led by Preetinder Bharara—who served as Schumer’s Chief Counsel for five years—used unprosecuted, unproven allegations of arranging murders that never actually occurred (and were recently dismissed) to deny Ross bail, smear him in the media, prejudice his jurors and justify the double life sentence he ultimately received. Ross was prosecuted as a drug kingpin, not for selling drugs but for creating a platform where others did, despite established laws protecting providers from liability for their users’ content.

At trial, all mention of the corruption was hidden from the jury, as well as evidence that multiple people operated the “DPR” accounts. After trial, it was discovered that someone using the DPR account logged into the Silk Road forum seven weeks after Ross was imprisoned. It was also later discovered that evidence used against Ross had been tampered with before trial, ostensibly by a corrupt government agent.

Ross’s lawyers were deprived of essential material at key points in the proceedings, prevented from calling expert witnesses, and blocked from cross-examining government witnesses. With the defense eviscerated, the government’s unreliable digital evidence appeared convincing enough to the jury, and Ross was convicted on all counts.

Judge Katherine Forrest—who was recommended for the bench by Schumer—based Ross’s sentence on what she perceived were Ross’s philosophical beliefs and crimes he was never charged with. She rejected independent academic studies showing that Silk Road reduced harm in the drug trade and that excessive sentences do not deter crime. She also rejected 100 letters [PDF] written by people who know Ross, attesting to his fine character and pleading with her to give him the mandatory minimum of 20 years. Instead, she sentenced Ross to double life without parole + 40 years, whereas other Silk Road defendants with similar charges received by far less time.

Ross’s appeals and Supreme Court petition were denied.

Ross is currently imprisoned in a maximum-security federal penitentiary in Florence, Colorado.

Even in the face of his excessive sentence, Ross clings to the hope of reuniting with his family, and dreams of a future where he can use his education, knowledge and skills to contribute to his community and society as a whole.