Former Federal Judge, Drug Reform Groups Urging Reduced Sentence for Ross Ulbricht

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Two drug-reform organizations, a criminal justice reform organization and a former federal judge filed an amicus brief on March 16 which laid out arguments rebuking Silk Road founder Ross Ulbricht’s sentence of life in prison without parole.

Ulbricht was convicted in May 2015 on charges that included money laundering, narcotics distribution, and fraud in connection to the Silk Road online marketplace, which was best known as an avenue for buying and selling illegal drugs. While prosecutors recommended that Ulbricht spend at least 20 years in prison, U.S. District Judge Katherine Forrest sentenced him to life in prison without parole, describing Silk road as an “assault on the public health of our communities.”

[Read more about the story of Silk Road and Ross Ulbricht here.]

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The organizations named on the amicus brief include the Drug Policy Alliance, JustLeadershipUSA, and Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP). Also named on the amicus brief is Nancy Gertner, a former federal judge for the U.S. District Court in Massachusetts who retired in 2011 and is currently a senior lecturer at Harvard Law School.

The brief filed on behalf of these groups argues that Ulbricht’s sentencing is cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment, and that the district court was incorrect in acknowledging drug overdoses allegedly connected to Silk Road purchases during “sentencing determination”:

“(Ulbricht) received – short of a sentence of death – the harshest punishment our legal system allows. In this context, this sentence is so rare and so severe as to violate the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. Additionally, in making the sentencing determination, the district court, erroneously relied on deterrence theory and improperly considered six alleged overdose deaths that cannot be properly attributed to Mr. Ulbricht.”

Regarding the six alleged drug overdoses which the court linked to purchases through Silk Road, the brief argued that “At Mr. Ulbricht’s sentencing, the district court allowed into evidence information about six overdose deaths that were allegedly connected to drugs purchased on Silk Road. … Mr. Ulbricht opposed consideration of the overdose deaths and submitted a report by defense expert Mark L. Taff, M.D., concluding that the information was insufficient to demonstrate a direct link … between drug purchases from Silk Road and the deaths. … The government provided no rebuttal to Dr. Taff’s report.”

The brief also points out that lifetime prison sentences are becoming increasingly uncommon:

“Life sentences are exceedingly rare in the federal criminal justice system, particularly for individuals, like Mr. Ulbricht, with no prior criminal record. … This is particularly true for people convicted of drug offenses, including drug trafficking. In 2013, life sentences were ‘imposed in less than one-third of one percent of all drug trafficking cases.’ Nationally, only two percent of all persons sentenced to life in prison were convicted of drug offenses. Life sentences are typically reserved for persons who committed violent crimes. As of 2013, over 90 percent of all life sentences in the United States were imposed on persons convicted of murder, sexual assault, rape, aggravated assault, robbery, or kidnapping.”

The brief went on to further argue that prescription drugs lead to more deaths “than all illegal drugs combined,” and that “Lives could have been spared if better legal and public health protections were in place, including: 1) limits on prescriptions for opioid pain relievers; 2) increased access to substance abuse disorder treatment, including Medication-Assisted Treatment; 3) expanded access to and training for administering naloxone, a drug used to reverse opioid overdose; 4) ensured access to integrated prevention services, including access to sterile injection equipment and supervised injection facilities; and 5) the establishment of Good Samaritan or 911 drug immunity laws which encourage people experiencing overdose and those at the scene of an overdose to seek medical help.”

The amicus brief in full is available to read here.

Ulbricht’s defense team filed an appeal in January, which condemned the prosecution’s suppression of pertinent information including the fact that two federal agents who were part of a task force investigating Silk Road were charged with fraud: Shawn Bridges pleaded guilty after being accused of stealing around $820,000 worth of Bitcoin, and Carl Force pleaded guilty to extortion, money laundering and obstruction of justice charges, as well as theft of hundreds of thousands of dollars in Bitcoin.

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