How could a criminal mastermind brilliant enough to create his own anonymous online drug marketplace also be stupid enough to keep a journal of his criminal activity? That was the crux of the closing argument from the defense in the Silk Road trial Tuesday, with attorneys sparring over the idea that Ross Ulbricht was framed as the operator of the hidden website that facilitated millions of dollars in drug sales from February 2011 to October 2013.
Defense attorney Joshua Dratel has maintained throughout the trial, which began on Jan. 13, Ulbricht started the website as an “economic experiment” where anyone could see anything. But Ulbricht walked away from the Silk Road, the defense has said, just a few months after its inception only for a shadowy character known only as "Dread Pirate Roberts" to assume control and ultimately lure Ulbricht back in when the end was near.
Ulbricht, 30, was arrested in October 2013 in a San Francisco library while at his laptop, which was logged into the Silk Road under the “Dread Pirate Roberts” user name. His involvement is corroborated, prosecutors say, by a trove of technical evidence and a detailed journal in which he admits keeping the Silk Road a secret from all but a few close friends, one of whom would ultimately testify against him during the trial in federal court for in Manhattan.
“The Internet thrives on misdirection and deception,” Dratel said. “You never know precisely who is on the other side of the computer screen.”
The government has participated in that deception, Dratel asserted, by entering into evidence journal entries, a thumb drive containing back up files of the Silk Road and metadata that prosecutors say belonged to Ulbricht. Other evidence includes accounting spreadsheets, expense reports, private messages and emails, screenshots of forum discussions as well as chat logs.
“Would the real DPR do that?” Dratel asked the jury. “You can take pieces of people’s lives online and put them together in a way that makes it seem like anything could happen.”
Dratel previously suggested Mark Karpeles, the CEO of the failed bitcoin exchange Mt. Gox, was behind the Silk Road, using the drug bazaar as a place to inflate the value of bitcoins, the only currency permitted on the market. Aside from various objections and cross-examinations, the defense rested Tuesday morning after calling a quick series of witnesses to testify on Ulbricht’s character starting Monday afternoon.
Prosecutor Timothy Howard told the jury they need only to consider a fraction of the government’s evidence against Ulbricht to find him guilty of the seven criminal counts against him, including conspiracy to traffic narcotics and operating a “continuing criminal enterprise.” It takes five people to create a conspiracy, prosecutors said, while thousands of Silk Road buyers and sellers engaged in an implicit agreement with the defendant simply by operating on his site.
The defense’s theory is “absolutely ridiculous,” Howard said, calling the notion Ulbricht was set up as a fall guy for the true Dread Pirate Roberts “a desperate smokescreen” to divert attention from the defendant’s alleged involvement.
Ulbricht, who was wearing a grey sweater with a white collar underneath, pleaded not guilty to each of the charges against him. He’s sat stoically in court during the course of the trial, joined by both his parents and a number of family members who have watched the proceedings from just a few rows behind the former science scholar.
Ulbricht has also had support from a rotating cast of defenders since the first day of trial when Judge Katherine Forrest instructed jurors to disregard any posters that might have seen supporting the defendant on their way into the courthouse. One such supporter made his way into the court Tuesday afternoon, audibly muttering obscenities as Howard made the final remarks for the government then, as if correcting the attorney, saying Ulbricht “had a legal empire.”
Forrest will give the jury its final instructions Wednesday morning before sending jurors off to deliberate. If convicted Ulbricht could spend the rest of his life in prison.