Ross Ulbricht has been sentenced to life in prison without parole on five non-violent counts. He is a first-time offender. This draconian ruling has sent shock waves worldwide.
“This sentence is unreasonable, unjust and unfair,” Defense attorney Joshua Dratel said. “It is based on improper considerations that have no basis in fact or law. Instead it is purely punitive and completely beyond the range of what drug offenders get in this district, in this circuit, in this country.“ It also beyond what murderers, rapists and child pornographers get. It is a harsher sentence than given to Charles Manson: Manson is eligible for parole.
Dratel referenced Peter Nash, another Silk Road defendant who pleaded guilty to all drug charges against him and was released after 17 months. “I’m not suggesting Mr. Nash and Mr. Ulbricht’s sentences should be the same. But this is 17 months vs. life. The only difference is that Mr. Nash pleaded guilty and Mr. Ulbricht exercised his constitutional right to trial. You could call it a trial tax. And here it’s beyond a tax.”
Dratel also referenced the Sentencing Reform Act, which requires that the judge impose a sentence that is “sufficient, but not greater than necessary.” This act was passed by Congress to provide fairness in sentencing and avoid disparities among defendants with similar charges. An extremely harsh sentence like this, far beyond the norm, is what this act of Congress was created to avoid.
“A judicial system that eschews compassion runs counter to all legal, as well as religious and social doctrine,“ Dratel said.
With this sentence, Judge Katherine Forrest delivered a strong endorsement of the U.S. government’s War on Drugs. She made it clear that it was to serve as a warning to others and that the government is doubling down on the drug war, which has not lessened or stopped drug use in its forty years of existence.
The judge also referenced DPR’s libertarian writings and the site’s political philosophy, including the statement that the U.S. government was the enemy. She said she found this “deeply troubling” and “very dangerous.” Presumably she would think the same of any citizen who expressed mistrust, hatred or fear of the federal government. Although his views were spotlighted at sentencing, they were precluded at trial, presumably because they supported Ross’s claim that he created and designed the site as a free market experiment, not a drug market per se.
Judge Forrest relied heavily on murder-for-hire allegations to bolster her decision, despite the fact that these were not part of the actual sentencing and were never charged, proven or convicted at trial. “Uncharged, unproven conduct drove this sentence dramatically. It was not about the crime he was convicted of,” Dratel said.
In addition, two parents of people who allegedly died of overdoses from drugs bought on Silk Road were brought to testify. When presented with an 11-page forensic pathology report stating in detail why the cause of these deaths could not be scientifically determined, the judge dismissed it as irrelevant. Joshua Dratel said the inclusion of these deaths at sentencing was the government’s “transparent appeal to emotion beyond what the crime was.”
Judge Forrest also rejected academic studies that concluded Silk Road reduced harm in the drug world and saved lives, saying it was “magical fantasy that the Silk Road site had a harm-reducing effect on society.” Dratel responded: “The fantasy is that long sentences make any difference. The fantasy is that the internet will not be a source of drugs or illegality because of this sentence.”
The defense also presented, and the judge rejected, many studies and articles concluding that long sentences do nothing to deter crime. “She took what was the unanimous consensus of independent, professional researchers and reduced it to a selection of a word here and a word there and twisted it on its head,” Dratel said.
Ross Ulbricht also addressed the court. He was visibly moved to tears after hearing the families testify and said he never meant for the site he designed five years ago to result in tragedy. He told the judge that during his almost two years in prison, some in solitary, that he had had much time to reflect and that he was now more mature and much more humble. He also asserted that his motive for designing Silk Road was to create a free, open market with few restrictions, not to hurt people. He assured the judge he would never break the law again, and asked her to leave him his older years after he had served his mandatory 20-year sentence. At that time Ulbricht would be 51 years old. He said he would be a different person and the world a different place.
Judge Forrest was unmoved, saying: “I don’t know that you feel a lot of remorse.” It is unclear why, considering Ross’ letter; his heartfelt statement; his volunteer work in prison; and the 100 letters from friends and family (including fellow inmates) attesting to his principled character and compassion. These people entreated the judge to allow Ross to eventually return to society and contribute to it. Although Judge Forrest called the collection of letters “impressive” she found them unconvincing.
She then addressed Ulbricht at length, before a gallery filled with supporters, observers and packed with more media than her courtroom had ever seen. In what sounded like a political campaign speech, she evoked the American flag to her right at least twice; spoke of democracy repeatedly; and berated Ulbricht that Silk Road was not a democracy. As the site was not a country and, like other non-democracies like Amazon or Wal-Mart, customers were there voluntarily, some observers expressed confusion at this.
The judge also implied that, although he has never said anything to indicate it, Ross thinks he is above the law because he is privileged and educated. It is unclear why this judge, worth multiple millions, considers Ross privileged. He grew up in a middle class family, in a rental house. His family lived a modest lifestyle, drove old cars and he was educated on the scholarships he earned.
Before issuing a life sentence without parole, the judge took an unjudicial tone and mocked Ulbricht, who stood helplessly before her: “”It is still unclear to me why you ever kept a journal,” she said, evoking laughter.
The defense will appeal this sentence, as well as the verdict at trial. Part of the appeal will address the fact that Judge Forrest refused to allow the defense to inform the jury about corrupt undercover investigators on Silk Road. These federal agents stole approximately a million dollars from the site and elsewhere. More important, they had high level administrative access to the Silk Road site, with the ability to change passwords; PIN numbers; commandeer accounts (including DPR’s); and control messages and other communications. Much of the evidence regarding the corruption remains under seal by the government.
Ross Ulbricht was sentenced to life in prison without parole for the following non-violent crimes: Distribution of Narcotics by Means of the Internet; Continuing Criminal Enterprise; Conspiracy to Commit and Aid and Abet Computer Hacking; Conspiracy to Traffic in Fraudulent Identity Documents; and Money Laundering Conspiracy.