The creator and chief operator of the Silk Road has been sentenced to two life sentences in jail for running the online drug marketplace, which federal prosecutors estimated facilitated the sale of more than US$213 million worth of drugs and other unlawful goods between 2011 and 2013.
The life sentences are to be served concurrently, along with a five-year sentence for hacking and twenty years for money laundering. The government is also seeking $183 million from Ulbricht based on the profits he made.
In February, Ross Ulbricht was found guilty of multiple charges related to the operation of Silk Road, including narcotics conspiracy, engaging in a continuing criminal enterprise, conspiracy to commit computer hacking and money laundering. The narcotics and criminal enterprise charges carry maximum penalties of life in prison. Under current federal sentencing laws, Ulbricht faced at least 20 years behind bars.
On Friday, Ulbricht stood before District Judge Katherine Forrest for sentencing. Forrest oversaw the case, which was heard at the U.S. District Court of the Southern District of New York in Manhattan.
"Silk Road was terribly destructive to our social fabric," Forrest told Ulbricht in court. The judge said sentencing was difficult: over 100 people had sent heartfelt, moving letters in defense of Ulbricht's character. But that was offset by the severity of the offenses, and by the coldness with which he had sought to arrange the murders of five people.
For his part, an emotional Ulbricht tried to convince the judge that he had changed, saying, "I'm a little bit wiser and much more humble."
But parents of two of the six people who died from drug overdoses linked to Silk Road purchases also made powerful victim impact statements. Both spoke in heartbreaking detail about the deaths of their children, and both asserted the victims would not have died had it not been for the easy accessibility of drugs on Silk Road.
Ulbricht has been jailed since his arrest in October 2013. He has 14 days to appeal the sentence, and his attorney confirmed that he would do so.
Last week, Ulbricht filed a letter to the court asking for leniency. He expressed deep remorse for his actions and vowed he would not break the law again.
"Silk Road turned out to be a very naive and costly idea that I deeply regret," he wrote. "I will know firsthand the heavy price of breaking the law and will know better than anyone that it is not worth it."
"I've had my youth, and I know you must take away my middle years, but please leave me my old age," he wrote.
Ulbricht's lawyer Joshua Dratel had argued that federal prosecutors had little direct evidence of Ulbricht's involvement with the site during the peak of its operations, claiming he had left the site for others to operate.
Forrest went to considerable lengths to explain the reasoning for her stiff sentence. She noted that Ulbricht was a complex person, an educated young man with a good family who did not fit the typical criminal profile.
Forrest said the case had no legal precedent, given that no one had been tried for large-scale online drug sales before. As a result, the case would serve as a warning to others.
"In breaking that ground, you have to pay the consequences," she told Ulbricht.
In the weeks leading up to sentencing, the defense sent the judge documentation that Silk Road actually did a lot of work in harm reduction, in that it hired a physician to answer drug questions online and steered users towards drug dealers with high user satisfaction ratings.
Forrest did not buy this "harm reduction" argument at all. She reviewed the doctor's advice on the Silk Road forums and found it "breathtakingly irresponsible." She berated Ulbricht and his team for their narrow-mindedness, describing them as a "a privileged group of people sitting in their own homes with their high-speed Internet connections."
Silk Road increased the market for drugs, she said, which affected not only drug users themselves but those regions that supplied the drugs, such as Afghanistan, that were affected by the violence of drug kingpins.
She didn't fully believe Ulbricht's apparent contrition, even after Ulbricht's tearful testimonial. "I don't know if you really are remorseful for the people you hurt," she said. She expressed disgust at how casually Ulbricht had ordered the murder of five individuals, evidence of which was captured in Silk Road chat logs. He had given the go-ahead for the murders and then immediately resumed work on technical issues on the site.
Ulbricht was never charged for the murders because bodies were never found, leaving open the possibility Ulbricht was conned. The defense had argued that because no evidence of murder was found, the hits should be ignored by the judge. Forrest bristled at this idea. How can someone ignore the cold-heartedness in which Ulbricht commissioned the hits, real or not? she said.
After intense study of the all the evidence, Forrest came to the conclusion that Ulbricht thought "Silk Road was above the law."
Ulbricht also faces a separate set Silk Road-related charges from federal prosecutors, to be heard in federal court in Maryland, involving murder-for-hire and additional drug distribution allegations.
Joab Jackson covers enterprise software and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Joab on Twitter at @Joab_Jackson. Joab's e-mail address is Joab_Jackson@idg.com