For the last three weeks in the trial of Ross Ulbricht, the Department of Justice has laid out a bright trail of detailed digital evidence that led to one conclusion: that Ulbricht ran the massive online narcotics empire known as the Silk Road. Now Ulbricht’s lead defense attorney has been given a final, one-hour chance to dismantle it. And he used that hour to point the finger at a shadowy alternative suspect and to cast doubt on any evidence that had touched what he described as the fundamentally untrustworthy Internet.
In his closing argument in a Manhattan courtroom Tuesday, Ulbricht’s attorney Joshua Dratel reiterated to the jury a theory he’s pursued in his questioning throughout the trial: that Ulbricht did in fact create the Silk Road as a harmless “economic experiment,” but gave it up after a few months, handing it over to its real operators, who later framed him as the site’s pseudonymous mastermind, the Dread Pirate Roberts. “There’s so much to question in this case,” Dratel said. “There are a lot of blinking neon signs in this case that were created to incriminate Mr. Ulbricht, and I submit to you that DPR was doing it.”
This time Dratel added some new details to the theory intended to explain reams of Silk Road-related evidence found on Ulbricht’s laptop at the time of his arrest. For one, he argued that the Bittorrent client downloading a Colbert Report episode on Ulbricht’s machine at the time was connected to nine other computers, any of which might have planted incriminating logs and messages throughout his computer. These incriminating bits would have been “sprinkled” with personal facts gleaned from social media to make them more believable, he added. Dratel suggested that the “real” Dread Pirate Roberts might have somehow installed malware on Ulbricht’s machine designed to frame him. And Dratel pointed to a flub in the FBI’s analysis of the laptop, in which a forensic program crashed the computer, preventing an agent from copying its memory. (Its hard drive’s stored data was still recovered.) “We’ll never know what processes were running on the laptop at the time,” Dratel said.
But the broader theme that Dratel returned to repeatedly was the argument that evidence from Internet interactions “can be distorted, edited, moved and manipulated.” He advised the jury to instead rely on evidence from real life. “There’s a distinction between the Internet and IRL for a reason. We are here in IRL, and we have to make judgements in IRL,” he said.
The defense’s argument never added up to a single, coherent alternative story about who might be responsible for the Silk Road’s high-volume narcotics sales. And it will have to overcome weeks of the prosecution hammering Ulbricht with a highly convincing line of incriminating breadcrumbs that extends well into the offline world.
“There’s a distinction between the Internet and IRL for a reason. We are here in IRL, and we have to make judgements in IRL.”
In its own closing argument, the prosecution reviewed what it described as that “mountain” of “incredibly damning” evidence with the jury: a journal, logbook, and accounting spreadsheet found on Ulbricht’s laptop at the time of his arrest, detailing his Silk Road activities for years; screenshots from his computer at the time of his arrest showing that he was logged into the Silk Road’s “mastermind” account; testimony from a friend to whom he confessed running the site; a crumpled piece of paper in his bedroom trashcan with formulas later included in Silk Road code; and a forensic analysis of the bitcoins found on his laptop, showing that they were transferred from the Silk Road’s servers.
Prosecutor Serrin Turner told the jury not to be swayed by the defense’s frame-job theory. “There were no little elves that put that evidence on [Ulbricht’s] computer,” he said.
Given that the defense has already conceded that Ulbricht created the Silk Road, prosecutors’ arguments focused instead on the duration of his ownership, trying to show that only one Dread Pirate Roberts ever controlled the site. Turner pointed to chat logs in which Ulbricht privately discussed using his Dread Pirate Roberts pseudonym to create the illusion of a “rotating command,” and suggested that the defense’s story that Ulbricht had given up the site was a similar trick. “The defendant is dusting off the Dread Pirate Roberts play and trying it one last time–on you, ladies and gentlemen,” Turner said.
Turner ended his review of evidence by dramatically highlighting the messages found on the Silk Road’s servers in which the Dread Pirate Roberts commissioned five murder-for-hires through a contact he believed was a Hell’s Angel. Turner acknowledged that those conversations were likely a “con job” played against Ulbricht, and that no one was killed—Ulbricht faces no murder charges in the New York case. But he argued they showed Ulbricht’s willingness to use violence to protect his business. “Thank goodness that this man’s power trip was stopped before he managed to connect with a true hitman,” Turner said, raising his voice for the only time in his closing argument. “For him, it was trivial, a click of a mouse…and wait for a picture of a dead body.”
The defense responded to those references to violence by citing a series of character witnesses it called to the stand to testify to Ulbricht’s “peaceful and nonviolent” personality. “DPR would resort to violence,” Dratel said, echoing the prosecution. “That’s how we know he’s not Ross Ulbricht.”
And just who is the Dread Pirate Roberts? Dratel didn’t state his own prime suspect outright. But he reminded the jury that former Mt. Gox CEO Mark Karpeles had been a Department of Homeland Security suspect just months before Ulbricht’s name came to the agency’s attention. Dratel also pointed to Anand Athavale, another suspect who the DHS had believed might be the Dread Pirate Roberts based on linguistic analysis of his posts to the libertarian website Mises.org. But ultimately, he told the jury, proving the identity of the Dread Pirate Roberts is the burden of the prosecution, not the defense.
“There were no little elves that put that evidence on [Ulbricht’s] computer.”
Dratel explained the Silk Road notes found in Ulbricht’s bedroom trashcan as having been dictated to him over the phone, perhaps by whoever was framing him. And as for the college friend to whom Ulbricht confessed his Silk Road ownership, Dratel pointed to a November 2011 conversation in which Ulbricht told the same friend he had sold the site. (A chat log from Ulbricht’s computer dated one month later in which Ulbricht describes lying to the same friend about selling the site, Dratel argued, was just a portion of the fake evidence planted by the real Silk Road mastermind.)
To raise more doubts in the jury’s minds, Dratel brought up a few mysteries that hadn’t been mentioned before in the case. Where, he asked, did the majority of the Silk Road’s money end up? A former FBI agent, after all, had traced more than 700,000 bitcoins to Ulbricht’s laptop, but only 144,000 bitcoins were found on the machine. In another mystery, two files that contained PHP code and a to-do list both showed up on Ulbricht’s computer with dates marked as the evening of October 1, 2013—hours after his arrest. “These are metadata anomalies the government doesn’t even try to explain,” he said.
In its rebuttal, the prosecution responded by reminding the jury one last time that Ulbricht was caught—IRL, not online—in a San Francisco public library, with his laptop logged into the Dread Pirate Roberts’ account on the Silk Road. “The defendant cannot escape the fact that he was caught with his fingers on the keyboard. He was caught redhanded,” said prosecutor Timothy Howard, who delivered the rebuttal. He called Dratel’s defense a “desperate attempt to create a smoke screen.”
“Don’t let the defendant insult your intelligence,” Howard added in his final address to the jury. Look at the evidence, he said, “and you’ll see the defendant’s wild conspiracy theories don’t hold water.”