Five full months have passed since the defense team for Silk Road creator Ross Ulbricht launched their appeal for a new trial. That 170-page argument represents Ulbricht’s last hope of escaping a life sentence after being convicted of running a conspiracy to traffic in drugs, launder money, and sell computer hacking tools. Now the prosecution has responded with its own, equally massive document rebutting those arguments one by one, an attempt to put the final seal on the fate of the man behind the dark web’s most notorious black market.In a 186-page brief filed Friday evening, the prosecutors rehash much of Ulbricht’s 11-day trial early last year and defend repeated decisions by Judge Katherine Forrest in the prosecution’s favor—a series of moves to suppress defense evidence, deny defense witnesses, and admit prosecution evidence that led Ulbricht’s attorneys to call for a mistrial no less than five times. But perhaps the most notable rebuttal concerns the controversy over the role of two corrupt federal agents who used their roles in the investigation to extort and steal money from the Silk Road, and whose involvement was kept entirely secret from the jury—and to some extent even from Ulbricht’s defense—during his trial.
Here are the prosecution’s most important arguments.
Argument: Criminal Feds Are Irrelevant
As the defense outlined in its appeal, DEA agent Carl Mark Force and Secret Service agent Shaun Bridges both abused their access to the Silk Road in insanely egregious ways: Bridges used an informant’s account to steal $800,000 in bitcoins from the site, while Force attempted to blackmail Ulbricht using one pseudonym while selling him law enforcement information using another. The defense has argued that it wasn’t told about the full extent of Force’s misbehavior until the trial concluded, and wasn’t told about Bridges’ role at all.
But in its latest rebuttal, the prosecution argues that any disclosures it should have made are irrelevant, because Force’s and Bridges’ behavior has nothing to do with disproving Ulbricht’s guilt. “Ulbricht’s appeal based on the corruption of two Baltimore agents fails for the simple reason that, even now, Ulbricht has not explained how the information he sought to compel or admit was exculpatory,” the brief reads. “Nowhere does Ulbricht explain how Force’s and Bridge’s crimes impeach the Government’s ‘overwhelming’ proof.”
The brief points to the prosecution’s laundry list of powerful evidence against Ulbricht that it argues has no relation to the corrupt agents. That damning evidence includes a logbook and journal found on his laptop, records of transactions on bitcoin’s public ledger known as the blockchain that trace $18 million in bitcoins sent from the Silk Road servers to that laptop, and FBI agents’ catching Ulbricht “red-handed” in a San Francisco library, logged into the Silk Road as its top administrator, even accessing a so-called “mastermind” page. Lawyers for Ulbricht’s defense declined to comment on the prosecution’s rebuttal.
Argument: Evidence Could Not Be Planted
The defense has argued that Bridges or Force could have used their illegal access to the Silk Road to tamper with its accounts or even somehow plant evidence on his laptop. But in its response, the prosecution points out that the Silk Road staff account that Secret Service agent Bridges hijacked from an informant didn’t actually have the “root” access necessary for that kind tampering. And it also argues that the defense knew about DEA agent Force’s crimes to the degree that if it had suspected some kind of evidence-planting on Ulbricht’s laptop, it could have tried to prove that foul play at trial. (In fact, Ulbricht’s defense did make arguments that evidence could have been planted on his laptop via a bittorrent connection, which the prosecution seemed to convince the jury were bogus. “There were no little elves that put that evidence on [Ulbricht’s] computer,” prosecutor Serrin Turner said in his closing argument.)
Argument: Defense Actually Shows More Guilt
Most damningly, the prosecution argues, Force’s actions show Ulbricht to be even more guilty, as they demonstrate that Ulbricht, then using the pseudonym the “Dread Pirate Roberts” or “DPR,” was using Force as a mole, paying for inside information on the ongoing investigation against him. “If anything, Force’s attempts to sell information to ‘DPR’ or otherwise extort him were ‘inculpatory as [they] suggest[ed] that Ulbricht, as ‘DPR,’ was seeking to pay law enforcement for inside information to protect his illegal enterprise,’” the brief reads.
In Defense of the Judge
The role of the corrupt agents is only one piece of Ulbricht’s campaign for a new trial, and the prosecution brief goes on to rebut its other points, too: It argues that warrants to seize and search Ulbricht’s digital files online and on his laptop were appropriately limited, and that the judge in the case was correct to preclude the defense’s cross-examination of a DHS agent, aimed at bringing out evidence suggesting bitcoin entrepreneur Mark Karpeles could be an alternate suspect in the search for Silk Road’s administrator. (That evidence was thin, and quickly dismissed by the Silk Road’s investigators.) And it defends the judge’s decision to block the defense from calling two last-minute expert witnesses, calling that tactic “trial by ambush.”
Why a Life Sentence Is Appropriate
Finally, the brief ends by addressing Ulbricht’s controversial life sentence. The defense argued that life without parole was unjust, based on spurious claims that Ulbricht was directly responsible for Silk Road buyers who died from drug overdoses as a result of substances they bought on his black market. The defense also argued that the deterrence effect Judge Forrest sought against future dark web entrepreneurs didn’t require that extreme sentence, writing that the punishment “shocks the conscience.”
It’s worth noting that the prosecution, during trial, never actually sought a life sentence. Instead, prosecutors suggested a sentence “substantially above the mandatory minimum” of 20 years. But in Friday’s brief, it fully backs the judge’s harsh rule.
The prosecution points to sentencing guidelines that show Ulbricht was entirely eligible for life in prison. And it argues that Ulbricht was directly responsible for those who died from overdoses as a result of the Silk Road’s sales. “In the Government’s view, Ulbricht was the kingpin of a global drug-trafficking enterprise who was responsible for all of the foreseeable consequences of his actions, including the multiple deaths tied to drug sales on Silk Road,” the brief reads. “Ulbricht knew, and sometimes mocked the fact, that his customers were often addicts struggling to quit, and he took their money, all the same.”