Here's What Both Sides Are Bringing to Ross Ulbricht's Sentencing

Ross Ulbricht could get life in prison for running the site.

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May 27 2015, 2:37pm

Image: FreeRoss.org

On Friday, Ross Ulbricht will find out if he will spend the rest of his life in prison for creating deep web marketplace Silk Road.

The 31-year-old Texan faces a mandatory minimum of 20 years in prison after being found guilty in February on all seven charges stemming from the creation and operation of the site, which he ran under the moniker "the Dread Pirate Roberts."

The prosecution is arguing for a sentence "substantially above" that minimum, citing deaths and other damage caused by Silk Road and saying Ulbricht has not "acknowledged full responsibility or shown true remorse for his actions."

The defense is asking for leniency, saying Ulbricht has already learned his lesson. The decision is in the hands of Judge Katherine Forrest, who filed a letter on Wednesday advising both parties in the case she is considering letting Ulbricht serve some of his years of punishment concurrently.

The prosecution: Silk Road caused foreseeable harm

In a sentencing memo filed Tuesday, government prosecutors asked the judge for a "lengthy sentence" for Ulbricht, claiming the site fueled drug addiction and abuse and led to at least six deaths.

The government filing said more than 1.5 million transactions with a total value of $214 million were carried out over Silk Road before it was shut down after three years of operation in October 2013. The website sold illicit products like hacking materials and money laundering instructions, but 95 percent of the transactions were drug-related, including at least $8.9 million in sales of heroin, $17.3 million of cocaine, and $8.1 million of methamphetamine. The filing claims Silk Road expanded consumer access to drugs "on a scale never before seen."

"The site enabled thousands of drug dealers to expand their markets from the sidewalk to cyberspace, and thereby reach countless customers whom they never could have found on the street," the prosecution wrote.

The filing reiterated the story of Michael Duch, a heroin addict who testified during the trial that he was lured into dealing due to the site's ease and anonymity. The prosecution also alleges that six people died from drugs purchased on the site and included letters from family members from the victims alleging their deaths were caused by Silk Road.

One of those alleged victims was found dead at his desk with a used syringe and other heroin paraphernalia next to his computer, according to the filing. There, he had the Silk Road website in an open Tor browser window with a message confirming the shipment of a package of heroin. In the other window on a standard webpage, he was viewing the USPS.com website with the same tracking information.

The browser of the alleged victim at the time of his death.

In the case of another heroin overdose victim, referred to as "Bryan B.," the government cited recent Google searches in his web history like "how to find heroin in Boston," saying these searches imply he would not have taken the drugs otherwise.

The government has doubled down on allegations that the site caused addiction and death after Ulbricht's team claimed Silk Road implemented "harm reduction strategies" that cut back on the violence and danger of the traditional drug trade, including paying a doctor to consult users on how to use drugs safely.

The Silk Road doctor, whose name is Fernando Caudevilla but who went by "DoctorX" on the site, said he never heard of a drug overdose caused by products purchased on Silk Road, but the government emphasized that the operation was not without victims.

"Praising Silk Road for including 'harm reduction measures' is akin to applauding a heroin dealer for handing out a clean needle with every dime bag: the point is that he has no business dealing drugs in the first place," the government wrote.

Prosecutors also said the judge should give Ulbricht a long sentence to deter others from following in his foot steps, saying a severe sentence could stop the growth of "dark markets."

"Ulbricht's conviction is the first of its kind, and his sentencing is being closely watched," the government wrote. "The Court thus has an opportunity to send a clear message to anyone tempted to follow his example that the operation of these illegal enterprises comes with severe consequences."

The defense: Ulbricht is a good person

Friends and family members of Ulbricht submitted nearly 100 letters testifying to the defendant's character, including one from a fellow inmate at the jail where he has been awaiting trial who said Ulbricht is teaching other inmates there yoga and meditation.

Ross' mother, Lyn Ulbricht, who has been campaigning on his behalf and soliciting funds for his trial said those letters describe "the real Ross," not the person she feels was demonized by the media and the prosecution in the trial.

"It is hard to imagine how a judge could read those 97 letters and give Ross more than the minimum of 20 years, which is already very long," she told Motherboard by email. "When almost 100 people consistently speak of a person's generous, peaceful, compassionate, inspiring character it should mean something."

Lyn said her "heart breaks" for people who have lost children to drug abuse, but says the government is using the overdose issue to distract from its corruption scandal that came out after the trial ended. In March, it was revealed that two agents investigating Silk Road had been accused of corruption, including the theft of hundreds of thousands of dollars, during the investigation of the website.

"I could have done so much with my life. I see that now."

"Just as they poisoned the trial with uncharged allegations of murder-for-hire, they are bringing overdose deaths to the sentencing without evidence that they were caused by drugs bought on Silk Road," she said by email.

Lyn is asking people to come to the sentencing on Friday to show support for Ross. Earlier this week, Ross asked for leniency in a letter filed ahead of the trial, imploring the judge to spare him the maximum penalty and leave him "a light at the end of the tunnel."

"In creating Silk Road, I ruined my life and destroyed my future," Ulbricht wrote to Judge Katherine Forrest. "I could have done so much more with my life. I see that now, but it is too late. I've had my youth, and I know you must take away my middle years, but please leave me my old age."

Ulbricht will be sentenced at 1 PM on Friday. He said he plans to appeal his conviction.