Skip to story In this courtroom sketch, courtroom deputy Joseph Pecorino reads the jury's verdict against Ross William Ulbricht, Feb. 4, 2015. Elizabeth Williams/AP
Just two months after Ross Ulbricht was convicted of running the billion-dollar online black market for drugs known as the Silk Road, he was offered what looked like a slim new hope of a retrial: Charges that two of the agents involved in investigating the anonymous drug market had themselves engaged in massive corruption, including blackmailing Ulbricht and stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars of the site’s bitcoins. But now the judge in the case has made clear that neither those new corruption charges nor a pile of other complaints from Ulbricht’s defense is going to win Silk Road’s creator a second chance at freedom.
In a ruling filed Monday afternoon, judge Katherine Forrest denied a motion from Ulbricht’s defense for a new trial, shooting down a series of arguments made by his defense team. Those arguments had included that the prosecution gave the defense insufficient time to review the evidence in the trial, that warrantless investigative attempts to identify the Silk Road server had violated Ulbricht’s fourth amendment privacy rights, and that new corruption charges against a Drug Enforcement Administration agent and Secret Service agent required a new examination of whether the case had been tainted.
Forrest was utterly unconvinced. “The evidence of Ulbricht’s guilt was, in all respects, overwhelming. It went unrebutted,” she wrote in her ruling. “This motion for a new trial…does not address how any additional evidence, investigation, or time would have raised even a remote (let alone reasonable) probability that the outcome of the trial would be any different.”
Forrest wrote in her ruling that the defense hadn’t proven that it had insufficient time to examine any of the prosecution’s evidence or what significant argument it would have raised had it had the time. And she emphasized that any additional argument would have had to combat the overwhelming evidence of Ulbricht’s guilt, which included the fact that he was arrested with his hands on the keyboard of a laptop full of his recorded chat logs and personal journal from his time running the Silk Road’s massive drug operation. “The Government presented overwhelming evidence of Ulbricht’s guilt. Ulbricht was caught red-handed—logged in and chatting [under his pseudonym the Dread Pirate Roberts] on a personal laptop, which Ulbricht unquestionably owned, filled with Silk Road files,” she writes. “In the face of this mound of evidence, there is no faint possibility, much less ‘reasonable probability,’ that the jury would have reached a different verdict.”
She went on to attack an argument the defense had made against the legality of law enforcement’s investigative techniques. In a motion to suppress evidence and declare a mistrial, the defense had pointed to communications from a Department of Homeland Security agent who had attempted to circumvent the anonymity software Tor used by the Silk Road. But just as in the pre-trial, when the defense made a similar claim about the FBI’s attempts to locate or hack the Silk Road’s server, the judge caught Ulbricht on a technicality: He had claimed no privacy rights to that server. Doing so, after all, would have incriminated him. “Defendant’s pre-trial suppression motion was denied principally on the basis that he had failed to establish a personal privacy interest in any Silk Road servers or the items thereon,” Forrest wrote. “That has not changed: defendant still has not provided an affidavit attesting to his personal privacy interest in the affected servers at the relevant time.”
Finally, Forrest also shot down the defense arguments that the two allegedly corrupt agents in the case had somehow planted evidence or otherwise dirtied the investigation. She pointed out, as the prosecution had done since the allegations against the two agents were first made under seal last year, that the two agents had been part of a separate, Baltimore-based investigation, rather than the New York-based team that had ultimately busted Ulbricht. “The Rogue Agents did not participate in the [Southern District of New York’s] investigation of Silk Road that resulted in defendant’s arrest and indictment, and none of the evidence at defendant’s trial came from the…Baltimore investigation in which the Rogue Agents participated,” she wrote. “That the Rogue Agents may have exceeded the scope of their authority in the…Baltimore investigation does not, in any way, suggest that Ulbricht was not the Dread Pirate Roberts.”
She went on to point out that one of the charges against those agents, the DEA special agent Carl Force, included that Ulbricht had paid him for counterintelligence information about the law enforcement investigation of the Silk Road. Force was, in essence, allegedly working as the Dread Pirate Roberts’ mole inside the DEA. “The investigation of SA Force is, if anything, inculpatory as it suggests that Ulbricht, as DPR, was seeking to pay law enforcement for inside information to protect his illegal enterprise,” she adds.
Ulbricht’s defense team didn’t immediately respond to WIRED’s request for a comment on the judge’s ruling.
Forrest’s decision against Ulbricht’s call for a new trial is perhaps no surprise. It comes after no less than five other calls for a mistrial from Ulbricht’s defense, all of which she rejected. The defense has nonetheless vowed to appeal the case, a decision that will fall to a panel of three appellate court judges. Ulbricht was convicted in February of all seven counts against him, including narcotics trafficking and money laundering conspiracies, and even a kingpin charge usually reserved for mafia dons and drug cartel leaders. He faces sentencing on May 15th, though his defense has asked for that date to be delayed to better argue against the prosecution’s calls for a life sentence.
The criminal case against Carl Force and the allegedly corrupt Secret Service agent Shaun Bridges, meanwhile, will continue to proceed in the Northern District of California, where charges were filed against them late last month. But regardless of those two agents’ guilt or innocence, it seems Ulbricht’s own guilty verdict is now one step closer to finality.
Here’s the judge’s full ruling: