“Silk Road was founded on libertarian principles and continues to be operated on them. It is a great idea and a great practical system…It is not a utopia. It is regulated by market forces, not a central power (even I am subject to market forces by my competition. No one is forced to be here). The same principles that have allowed Silk Road to flourish can and do work anywhere human beings come together. The only difference is that the State is unable to get its thieving murderous mitts on it.”
– Dread Pirate Roberts
New York City – On Tuesday the trial of Silk Road creator Ross Ulbricht will continue in a federal courthouse in the Southern District of New York City.
Ulbricht is accused of trafficking drugs on the Internet, narcotics-trafficking conspiracy, computer-hacking conspiracy and money-laundering conspiracy for his role as the creator of the Silk Road and for allegedly being the man behind the online persona that ran the marketplace, Dread Pirate Roberts. In the first week of the trial the prosecution attempted to convince the jury that Ulbricht was DPR by showcasing exhibit after exhibit of drugs purchased by undercover officer with the Homeland Security Investigations.
The government claims that Ulbricht was running the administrative side of the website during these and other drug purchases and thus should be held responsible for the purchases. The government is claiming Ulbricht is responsible under something known as “transferred intent”.This doctrine will allow the government to attempt to convince the jury that Ulbricht is responsible for the activities of the website itself, whether or not he was directly involved. Ross’s mother Lyn Ulbricht has said that if the precedent is set during her son’s trial it could “put a chill on the internet.”
Indeed, if the governments arguments convince the jury that Ulbricht is guilty of the crimes by simply hosting them it could create a dangerous situation where website owners could be held responsible for users comments on a site, or for the products sold on ebay or craigslist.
As the IB Times wrote, “If found guilty he will go down as the first person in history to be convicted for the actions of the users of his website, rather than merely his own actions.”
The first week of the trial was not without controversy. At the end of day one, Judge Katherine Forrest warned the courtroom that if jury nullification activists were present outside the courtroom in the morning she would implement an “anonymous jury” that would be sequestered, and brought in through a “special location”. The Defense attorneys and Ulbricht family asked activists to discontinue the activities because they might do more harm than good. The fear is that if the jury is “anonymized” (a process usually reserved for high profile mafia and criminal kingpin cases) it may send the message that Ulbricht is dangerous or that the jurors are in danger.
Day two began with the prosecution continuing to question DHS agent and apparent Silk Road mole Jared Der-Yeghiayan. Lead prosecutor Serrin Turner presented several screenshots related to criminal activity on the Silk Road. He asked Deryeghiayan to explain each exhibit and how it related to illegal activity, including the purchase of illicit drugs and fraudulent documents.
While it has been demonstrated that drugs were in fact trafficked through the Silk Road, charges of conspiracy to traffic in hacking software and stolen passports have yet to be substantiated by the government. Even if the prosecution proves that drugs, fraudulent documents, and hacking software/services were in fact trafficked through Silk Road, they must still demonstrate that at the time of the alleged illegal activity, Ulbricht was acting as Dread Pirate Roberts, the Silk Road administrator.
In the late afternoon the prosecution questioned Der-Yeghiayan on the specifics of how the government arrested Ulbricht. Der-Yeghiayan said the DHS concocted a plan to get Ulbricht in a public place with internet to catch him chatting with the undercover agent as Dread Pirate Roberts. The government’s charges against Ulbricht depend on their ability to prove that Ulbricht was indeed Dread Pirate Roberts. To secure that evidence the arresting agents were instructed to pull the laptop first before grabbing Ulbricht.
On the third day of the trial the defense began poking holes in the prosecutions version of events. The Defense sought to prove that Der-Yeghiayan has suspected others of potentially being DPR, and even stated that he was unsure who or how many people were DPR. The court erupted when Der-Yeghiayan confirmed that he had suspected disgraced Mt GOX CEO, Mark Karpeles, and his right hand man, Ashley Barr, of being the masterminds behind Silk Road.
He even went so far as to sign an affidavit stating he had probable cause to get a warrant to search Karpeles’ emails. Der-Yeghiayan also expressed frustration with a parallel Baltimore, Maryland investigation that seized money from Karpeles associated with alleged illegal money transfer business, tipping him off to the fact that there was a government investigation underway. It was also revealed that Karpeles’ attorney told Maryland investigators he wanted to make a deal that he would say who he thought was behind Silk Roak in exchange for immunity for potential unlicensed money transfer business.
Last week’s proceedings finished with Judge Forrest dismissing the jurors early so the Defense and Prosecution could work out exactly what evidence would be allowed into the court room. The prosecution argued that alternative investigations being conducted by Der-Yeghiayan amounted to hearsay and were “irrelevant”. At one point Judge Forrest said she believed the evidence to be very relevant and the court room broke out in laughter. When court returns on Tuesday the judge will allow both sides to present supporting cases before she decides if the jury should hear about the other investigation.
The jury will also be hearing from a computer expert who was in possession of Ulbricht’s computer after his arrest. This might lead to a better understanding of exactly how the government was able to find Ross Ulbricht. The authorities claim they were able to track Ulbricht after a simple hole in his security was allegedly located because of a faulty CAPTCHA page. The CAPTCHA page is a security feature that jumbles characters and asks a user to enter the characters to prove they are not a bot.
However, Nicholas Weaver, a researcher at the International Computer Science Institute and University of California, called the FBI’s version of event “inconsistent with reality”. Online security and privacy researcher Nik Cubrilovic also called the scenario “impossible”. If the FBI obtained access to the website, and thus Ulbricht, through illegal means then the evidence could be thrown out. Unfortunately for his team to make that defense they would have to claim ownership of the site itself. Something they seemed determined to avoid.
The trial is expected to run for another 3-5 weeks before arguments conclude and the jury makes it decision.
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