Ross Ulbricht Case Overview

Ross Ulbricht, a young, peaceful first-time offender, is serving a double life sentence without parole, plus 40 years, for all non-violent charges associated with creating the Silk Road website. An Eagle Scout and scholarship student, he was a 26-year-old idealistic libertarian—passionate about free markets and privacy—when he made the site. Ross was never prosecuted for causing harm or bodily injury and no victim was named at trial. This is a sentence that shocks the conscience.

Ross has expressed heartfelt remorse for creating Silk Road and accepts responsibility for the mistake he made. Although he never intended harm, he has learned how even well-meaning and idealistic actions can have unintended consequences. Now much wiser and more mature, Ross has vowed that, should he be released, he would never come close to breaking the law again.

Silk Road was an online marketplace similar to eBay, that emphasized privacy and used Bitcoin as the means of exchange. Based on the non-aggression principle, it allowed people to voluntarily buy and sell what they chose, as long as no third party was harmed. Consequently, the site prohibited child pornography, violent services, stolen property, and generally anything used to harm or defraud others. Items exchanged included books, art, clothing, and electronics. However, other vendors realized that the site’s anonymity made it an attractive platform for selling illegal drugs (most commonly small amounts of marijuana, as shown by a Carnegie Mellon University study). Ross was not accused of selling drugs or illegal items himself, nor did he launder money or hack computers, but was held responsible for what others sold on the site.

The entire case that led to Ross’s egregious sentence—from the investigation to the trial to the sentencing—was riddled with corruption, prosecutorial and judicial misconduct, and constitutional violations. In the course of arriving at the conviction and sentence, Ross’s rights were violated numerous times.

Both the prosecution and the much of the media smeared Ross with unprosecuted, false allegations of planning violence that never occurred, were never ruled on by a jury and were ultimately dismissed with prejudice. His case was tainted by corrupt agents now in prison, warrantless spying and lies under oath by the FBI and AUSA, proven evidence tampering, preclusion of exculpatory evidence, and much more.

Ross’s cruel and unusual sentence is an extreme example of sentencing disparity and the kind of abuse that reformers are now fighting to change. Compared to others sentenced for similar, or worse, conduct, Ross’s sentence is grossly excessive and disproportionate. All the other Silk Road defendants received sentences ranging from 17 months to 10 years.

Ross and his legal team at Williams & Connolly LLP, supported by 21 organizations, petitioned the Supreme Court challenging important Fourth and Sixth Amendment violations in the case, but the Court declined to hear it.

There is a strong, growing consensus that Ross is the victim of a miscarriage of justice. His clemency has widespread, grassroots support, including from the criminal justice reform, technology, blockchain, and liberty communities. Close to 100 eminent organizations and individuals from across the political spectrum have voiced their support. His recent clemency petition is steadily growing with over 167,000 signatures to date, making it the second biggest clemency petition for a non-violent offender currently on

While enduring the harshness of prison for his sixth consecutive year, Ross has been a model inmate—leading classes, tutoring, helping fellow inmates and being a good influence. He has never received a disciplinary sanction and is universally liked by the prison staff. Based solely on his life sentence, and despite his non-violent history and low security score, he is being held at a maximum-security facility.

Despite his ordeal, Ross remains a fundamentally positive and compassionate human being. He clings to the hope of a second chance and dreams of a future where he can use his education, knowledge and skills to contribute society and inspire change as an advocate for criminal justice reform.

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