“Everybody gasped” upon hearing the judge’s decision, remarked Alex Winter, creator of “Deep Web”, a documentary on Silk Road to debut later today.
Ross William Ulbricht, convicted of seven charges for allegedly running the online drug marketplace, was handed life in prison with no possibility of parole- the harshest possible sentence for the crimes allegedly committed. The minimum sentence is 20 years. He was also ordered to forfeit $183 million.
Silk Road had become one of the most infamous online marketplaces for illegal drugs and contraband, processing $1.2 billion in sales throughout its lifetime. Sales were made in bitcoin in an effort to preserve anonymity.
Early in the trial, Ulbricht’s defense acknowledged that he created the site, but sold it to others after a few months, and was later duped into retaking control. Prosecutors allege that he continuously and actively masterminded the site’s operation.
Winter described the scene in the courtroom during the three-hour sentencing hearing as “incredibly dramatic” and intense. Nobody he spoke with had expected such a harsh sentence, which Judge Katherine Forrest said was a difficult decision that took her 100 hours to arrive at. Ultimately, she assessed that Silk Road was “an assault on the public health of our communities.” She told Ulbricht, “What you did with Silk Road was terribly destructive to our social fabric.”
The prosecution sought a harsh sentence to deter others from engaging in Silk Road-like ventures, of which several have already been created, albeit with limited success in evading authorities. Prosecutors brought in the parents of two of six individuals whose deaths are believed to have been caused by overdoses of drugs obtained from Silk Road. “I strongly believe my son would be here today if Ross Ulbricht had never created Silk Road,” said the father of Bryan B, whose son was battling a drug addiction but couldn’t overcome the “deadly combination of convenience and anonymity” on Silk Road.
Ulbricht took the stand for the first time in the case, crying and pleading with Judge Forrest to give him a second chance. He did not create the marketplace out of greed and vanity, as alleged by the prosecution, but to “empower people to make choices.” He also expressed remorse, saying “I’m not the man I was when I created Silk Road. I wish I could go back and convince myself to take a different path, but I can’t do that.”
Forrest acknowledged that Ulbricht didn’t fit the typical criminal profile. But what he did in “in breaking that ground as the first person” to create a criminal market of such proportions was unprecedented, she said, and a clear message had to be sent. A key factor in her decision was evidence of Ulbricht’s intent to flout the law, counter to his claims of making a “naive mistake”. She also pointed to five alleged murder-for-hire plots by Ulbricht. Although the allegations have yet to be proven, that have been used to prove the extent of Ulbricht’s willingness to protect his criminal enterprise.
She also charged that Ulbricht was “no better a person than any other drug dealer” and read evidence where Ulbricht allegedly joked about a drug addict unable to contain his addiction because of Silk Road.
Lyn Ulbricht, Ross’ mother, said her son was “looking at his life being destroyed.” She claimed, “I know that if Ross walked out of that prison tomorrow law enforcement would never hear from him again. Ross is no more a threat to society than I am.”
Ulbricht’s attorney Joshua Dratel, who had several run-ins with Judge Forrest throughout the trial, called the decision “unreasonable and unjust.” He plans to appeal both the verdict and the sentencing.
The sentence is by far the greatest punishment ever for any crime involving bitcoins. It contrasts sharply with that of Charlie Shrem, whose two-year sentence, on charges of a much smaller scale, was viewed as a major victory after he faced a longer sentence. In that case, the judge expressed a more sympathetic tone and distinguished between assisting drug users, one of Shrem’s allegedly crimes, and empowering drug dealers, which are “are among the most repulsive human beings that can be encountered.”