A New York judge sentenced Ross Ulbricht to life in prison last Friday for his role in creating Silk Road, but the 31-year-old Texas native isn’t going down without a fight. Ulbricht’s defense attorneys are mounting an aggressive appeal, and say they are likely to file official paperwork in federal district court by the end of this week.
The appeal will primarily challenge the “reasonableness” of the sentence, and reduce the amount of time Ulbricht will spend behind bars. Right now, Ulbricht, who was given two life sentences plus 30 years, is likely to spend the rest of his days in a federal prison. The appeal will also urge the court to reconsider suppressed evidence about two corrupt law enforcement officials who participated in the Silk Road investigation.
“I can tell you off the bat that [the appeal] is going to be focusing on the reasonableness of this sentence,” said Lindsay Lewis, who along with Joshua Dratel represented Ulbricht during the three-week trial, in an interview Tuesday.
The Silk Road trial has been something of a media spectacle, drawing international coverage, book deals, and Hollywood screenplays. On one side, Ulbricht’s critics have deemed him to be a brilliant criminal mastermind behind a site that peddled assassinations, drugs and child pornography. On the other side, his supporters say he was simply a computer whiz kid who had a libertarian dream of a purely open marketplace.
A jury, however, convicted Ulbricht in February on seven counts of criminal charges related to narcotics trafficking, computer hacking and operating a continuing criminal enterprise. As part of his conviction, Ulbricht faced a mandatory minimum of 20 years behind bars. At his sentencing on Friday, Ulbricht pleaded unsuccessfully for leniency from the court.
“What you did was unprecedented and in breaking that ground you now sit here and pay the price for that,” said Judge Katherine Forrest. “You're a criminal. This wasn't a game, and you knew that.”
Ulbricht’s defense has acknowledged that Silk Road was a major conduit for drug sales. However, they maintain that Ulbricht intended the site as nothing more than an "economic experiment” where people could buy and sell products as they please. His attorneys also say that characterizing their client as a dangerous criminal is absurd. “We have 100 letters from people who know him personally and can attest to his excellent character traits, and that he'd be a tremendous asset to society if he was released,” says Lewis.
During his trial, Ulbricht’s defense team also tried and failed to include evidence about two law enforcement agents who have since been indicted for wire fraud and money laundering in connection with their investigation of the Silk Road.
Lewis says this fact will be part of the appeal.
Specifically, Carl Force, a former member of the Drug Enforcement Agency, worked undercover on the Silk Road until he was accused of stealing bitcoin and “calculated to bring himself personal financial gain,” a government indictment alleges. Shaun Bridges, a U.S. Secret Service agent, stands accused of pocketing $800,000 instead of turning it over to the government as evidence.
“We weren't able to use any of that in the trial,” she said. “We asked for an adjournment, and we didn't get one.” Lewis added they will be requesting that Ulbricht be detained in Manhattan while awaiting an appeal from the court.
Ultimately, the principal focus of the appeal will be the sentence, and giving Ulbricht the chance to live his later years as a free man. If the appeal is unsuccessful, however, Ulbricht will unquestionably be set to live the rest of his life behind bars in prison.
“It's just unreasonable,” says Lewis.