What Went Wrong In The Ulbricht Trial

Why he was found guilty on all seven crimes

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The entire trial took less than a month, and he was found guilty of seven crimes including narcotics trafficking, money laundering, criminal enterprise, and computer hacking.

This Wednesday, in a Manhattan courtroom, 30-year old Ross Ulbricht was convicted of being Dread Pirate Roberts, the site owner of Silk Road, a notorious black market that was used to trade drugs from 2011 to 2013.

The entire trial took less than a month, and he was found guilty of seven crimes including narcotics trafficking, money laundering, criminal enterprise, and computer hacking.

For those following the story, this may not sound like an incredible surprise. And for a good reason. The defense was terrible. Regardless of whether or not the trial was fair, which many, the defense included, are saying that it was not, one thing is certain - the investigation was never fair.

 

Upon the FBI’s discovery that the real location of the Silk Road server was in Iceland, they recruited law enforcement in Iceland to help. Icelandic authorities managed to create a copy of the server, which then allowed the FBI to identity Ulbricht through numerous links from the server. Additionally, a rather incriminating question on StackOverflow posted by Ulbricht in early 2013, which asks how to use Tor to hide a specific host.

The real surprise, however, is the defense’s lack of questioning as to exactly how the FBI discovered the server in Iceland. In fact, the answer has been side stepped and avoided, and at some points, out right lies.

Tor, or The Onion Router, is an anonymous part of the internet that uses multiple servers to rewire the connection, like an onion, which makes the initial user impossible to trace. This coupled with other information allowed investigators to obtain search warrants and an eventual arrest.

The FBI found Ulbricht in a public library in San Francisco with his laptop wide open, full of bitcoins, information related to the site, and worst of all, a detailed journal that left little doubt of his involvement.

So, all this was used painfully in his prosecution and it is little surprise that he was found guilty.

The real surprise, however, is the defense’s lack of questioning as to exactly how the FBI discovered the server in Iceland. In fact, the answer has been side stepped and avoided, and at some points, out right lies.

But in fact, US law gives privilege to “standing”, or if there is no interest in the situation, you have say in court. By the fourth amendment, the defendant can declare a legal interest in the item searched (in this case, the server). An example would be when police illegally search a house, and find contraband that belongs to someone else. That other person needs to to declare a privacy interest in the house. So Ulbricht could have contested the server seizure, if he had declared that the server was his own. But without this declaration, the court doesn’t care whether the seizure was legal.

The declaration as such would not a use of guilt. In fact, it can then only be used by the prosecution if the defendant testifies. So, even after a handwritten note from the judge, double checking the defense’s decision not to use the opportunity, the defense still refused, which made the issue of obtaining of the (certainly illegal) server suppressed.

Worse, Ulbricht plead not guilty to the crimes, but agreed that he had indeed founded the site, but promptly sold it. His lawyer, Joshua Dratel, employed a slightly different tactic. Not only did he claim that Ulbricht was framed, but he actually even accused Mark Karpeles, a Bitcoin entrepreneur of framing him - as the real mastermind behind Silk Road. Further, he claimed that the Bitcoins found were legitimate - upwards of $13 million.

Needless to say, the defense practically gave the prosecution their case. Not only did he admit to involvement, but “framing” was a joke. Which is why it only took the jury a day to deliberate.

It’s likely that Ulbricht and Dratel will appeal.