The Case – Overview

Ross Ulbricht, aged 29, was arrested on October 1, 2013 in San Francisco, based on charges that he created and operated the online marketplace Silk Road under the pseudonym Dread Pirate Roberts (DPR). He was placed in solitary confinement with no explanation for the next six weeks.

The Silk Road was an Amazon-style website, hosted on TOR (The Onion Router), where people exchanged goods and services anonymously, using the cryptocurrency Bitcoin. The site was designed to protect user privacy. 

Silk Road users exchanged a wide variety of things, both legal and illegal, including drugs, as well as legal ones such as art, books, raw milk and clothing. It was an open market with few restrictions, although site rules prohibited such involuntary, victimizing things as child pornography, stolen goods and assassinations. In spite of this, only drug sales were allowed to be mentioned before the jury.

Despite a significant bail package, Ross, with a totally clean record and no history of violence, was denied bail on Nov 21, 2013.

After three delays, Ross’ trial began on January 13th, 2015. His lawyer confirmed that he created Silk Road, but Ross pled not guilty to running it. The defense asserted that Ross transferred site control to others after a short time, and it was that person(s) who used the identity DPR. Evidence and expert testimony supported this assertion, but Judge Katherine Forrest barred it from being presented to the jury.

Although it was an extremely complex case, on February 4, 2015, in only three hours, the jury delivered a guilty verdict of seven counts. There was no charge of selling an illegal substance; laundering money; hacking into a computer; selling fake IDs; or directly harming any person or property. Rather the charges essentially were that Ross created and ran a website that permitted these actions.

The government cited no victims at trial, in spite of its uncharged, unprosecuted, unproven allegations of murder-for-hire that were included in the criminal complaints, indictment and influenced sentencing. No murders occurred.

Although the charges are all non-violent and Ross has no prior record, on May 29, 2015 Judge Katherine Forrest gave Ross the maximum possible sentence: double-life without parole plus forty years — essentially a slow death sentence.

On May 31, 2017, Ross’ appeal [PDF] to the Second Circuit was denied and on Dec 22, 2017, he filed a Petition for Writ of Certiorari [PDF] for the Supreme Court which focuses on Fourth and Sixth Amendment violations.

Ross is serving his sentence at the maximum security USP in Florence, CO.

Read: The Charges