Prosecutors faced questioning Tuesday about the fairness of a life sentence for drug dealing as a Manhattan federal appeals court heard arguments on Silk Road founder Ross Ulbricht’s conviction for running a bitcoin-fueled black market drug bazaar on the internet.
“Isn’t it somewhat unusual for a young man in his early 30s with no criminal history, who himself was not dealing drugs . . . to receive a life sentence?” asked Judge Christopher Droney, one member of the three-man U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals panel.
Judge Gerard Lynch, another panel member, questioned the emotional impact of prosecution testimony from parents of two Silk Road drug buyers who died of overdoses at Ulbricht’s 2015 sentencing before U.S. District Judge Katherine Forrest.
“Didn’t the sentencing get kind of hijacked by the overdose deaths?” said Lynch, worrying that the risk of overdose in every drug case could become an “emotional overload” when prosecutors target it at sentencing. “Doesn’t that put an extraordinary thumb on the scales?”
Ulbricht, 32, a Californian, was convicted of masterminding a website that did an alleged $200 million in sales over 2 years, using encryption and bitcoin to preserve anonymity for drug buyers and sellers and making $18 million from what prosecutors called a new model for criminality.
Ulbricht’s supporters contended he was an internet innovator whose enthusiasm and youth led him astray — his father, who attended Thursday’s arguments, compared his son’s journey to the French Revolution — but Forrest sentenced him to the maximum of life without parole.
“Murderers don’t get life as a matter of course,” defense lawyer Josh Dratel told the appeals judges. “The average for people who commit murders is 20 years in this circuit, in this district. . . . A life sentence is unreasonable.”
Dratel also compared Ulbricht to the landlord of a house where drugs were sold and said even large-scale dealers usually didn’t get life. “It’s not necessary,” he told the panel.
The judges pointed out that, even without emotional evidence about overdose deaths, Ulbricht had also been accused of offering to pay purported internet hit men to murder individuals he saw as threats to Silk Road — a threat of violence that went beyond being landlord of a drug house.
Although none were carried out, prosecutor Eun Young Choi argued that those plots provided a strong basis for a life sentence even without the overdose deaths, and also called Ulbricht “no normal kingpin.”
“This was unprecedented in its scale,” she said.
In addition to the sentence, Ulbricht also is trying to overturn his conviction on various grounds, including arguments that his lawyers weren’t allowed to fully explore the role played in the case by two federal agents convicted of stealing bitcoin from Silk Road during the investigation.
The judges gave no indication of when they will rule.