Judges question whether Silk Road founder’s sentence is fair

Attorneys for Ross Ulbricht appeared in a Manhattan court before a panel of judges to appeal his 2015 conviction. It’s been over a year since Ulbricht, then 32, was sentenced to life in prison without parole for creating and running the Silk Road, and nearly three years since Ulbricht was arrested by FBI agents at a San Francisco library.

Inside the courtroom, Ulbricht’s defense questioned the severity of a life sentence for Ulbricht’s conviction for drug trafficking, money laundering, and leading an organized criminal enterprise. Also at issue: the role of two corrupt agents in the investigation, the credibility of some of the evidence, and the blocking of defense efforts to call a pair of expert witnesses.

Appellate judge Gerald Lynch referenced the portion of Ulbricht’s sentencing hearing in which parents of individuals who had died from drugs purchased on the Silk Road were allowed to testify, saying that such impact statements “put an extraordinary thumb on the scale that shouldn’t be there.”

“Does this [testimony] create an enormous emotional overload for something that’s effectively present in every heroin case?,” Lynch asked, per Mike Hayes of Buzzfeed. “Why does this guy get a life sentence?”

Federal Judge Katherine Forrest had called particular attention to six fatal overdoses tied to the Silk Road at sentencing, referring to Ulbricht’s role in creating a “terribly destructive” website. Forrest also leaned heavily on the disputed murders commissioned on Ulbricht’s behalf, stating, “There is ample and unambiguous evidence that [Ulbricht] commissioned…murders to protect his commercial enterprise.”

The defense restated their objection to this element of the sentencing at appeal, reiterating that there is “no evidence they [the murders] even occurred.” Ulbricht’s lead defense attorney, Joshua Dratel, added that murder-for-hire is traditionally given a 10-year sentence and that “Murderers don’t get life sentences…People who actually commit murder.”

On the other side, the prosecution doubled down on the inclusion of the plots in sentencing. Prosecutor Eun Young Choi said, “This is unprecedented, the amount of drugs, the amount of harm.”

Ulbricht’s lawyers seemed to make less headway with the three-judge panel with their suggestions trial evidence had been tampered with by a pair of corrupt agents. The duo stole more than $1.5 million in Bitcoins and sold information to law enforcement.

The Silk Road founder’s sentence of life without parole is beyond the prosecution’s request that the judge impose a sentence “substantially above the mandatory minimum.” In New York’s Southern District, site of Ulbricht’s trial, 75% of cases receive shorter terms than federal sentencing guidelines.

Analysts believe that in the wake of the appeal, Ulbricht’s best shot at a new trial may be an opposition to the severity of the sentence imposed.

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