Pubdate: Tue, 19 May 2015
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2015 The New York Times Company
Author: Benjamin Weiser


The already novel criminal case against Ross W. Ulbricht, the 
recently convicted founder of the website Silk Road, has taken yet 
another unusual turn.

Mr. Ulbricht could face life in prison when he is sentenced on May 29 
in Federal District Court in Manhattan for his role in running Silk 
Road, a once-thriving black market for the sale of heroin, cocaine, 
LSD and other drugs. And although prosecutors have not yet said what 
length of sentence they will seek for Mr. Ulbricht, 31, they have 
told Mr. Ulbricht's lawyers that they intend to introduce evidence of 
six overdose deaths attributable to drugs bought from vendors on Silk 
Road, according to a recent defense filing.

Now, in the latest twist in a case that has been flush with 
technological intrigue, Mr. Ulbricht's lawyers are asking the judge 
to disregard the overdose deaths at his sentencing by raising an 
argument that has probably never been heard in a traditional drug case.

Mr. Ulbricht's lawyers contend in a filing on Friday that "in 
contrast to the government's portrayal of the Silk Road website as a 
more dangerous version of a traditional drug marketplace," the 
website "was in many respects the most responsible such marketplace 
in history."

Silk Road operated on a hidden part of the Internet, made deals with 
the virtual currency Bitcoin and offered anonymity to buyers and 
sellers, the defense noted.

As a result, Silk Road was "a peaceable alternative to the often 
deadly violence so commonly associated with the global drug war, and 
street drug transactions, in particular," wrote Meghan Ralston, a 
former "harm reduction manager" for the Drug Policy Alliance, a group 
seeking reform of marijuana laws and other drug policies, in a 
declaration included in the defense's filing.

She added that transactions on Silk Road did not result in people's 
having guns pulled on them at the moment of purchase, or require 
buyers to even visit dangerous neighborhoods. Silk Road had begun to 
"revolutionize" drug selling, she wrote.

In the filing, Mr. Ulbricht's lead lawyer, Joshua L. Dratel, cited 
Silk Road's "harm reduction ethos" and said the site also had a 
physician who specialized in drugs and addiction, called himself 
Doctor X and provided expert advice and responded to requests for assistance.

"Indeed, the distinction between Silk Road and traditional drug 
selling is as dramatic as it is unique," Mr. Dratel wrote.

The defense's position at trial was that Mr. Ulbricht had created the 
Silk Road website but gave control to others before he was later 
lured back in and set up to be arrested. The government has said Mr. 
Ulbricht was involved throughout, running Silk Road under the 
pseudonym Dread Pirate Roberts. More than 100,000 individuals bought 
drugs and other illicit goods and services on the website, which 
generated more than $213 million from January 2011 to October 2013, 
the government has said.

The office of Preet Bharara, the United States attorney in Manhattan, 
has not offered details of Silk Road's link to the overdoses. The 
office has told Judge Katherine B. Forrest that parents of two 
overdose victims are expected to address the court at sentencing.

Mr. Dratel, in a brief phone interview, said the defense, which 
retained Dr. Mark L. Taff, a former chief medical examiner of 
Rockland County, to review the six cases, believes that the 
government's claims with respect to the deaths "is insufficient to 
attribute to Silk Road, much less Ulbricht."

Mr. Dratel added that since prosecutors "opened up the whole issue of 
dangerousness, we think the harm-reduction measures exist on their 
own as a mitigating factor."

The defense filing says each person who died of a drug overdose "had 
a history of chronic substance abuse as well as medical and 
psychiatric problems prior to death, which could have caused or 
contributed to their death."

Mr. Bharara's office had no comment.
- ---
MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom