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Judge weighs how long to imprison Silk Road founder Ross Ulbricht

Ross Ulbricht, the founder of an online drug

Ross Ulbricht, the founder of an online drug marketplace that prosecutors said did $200 million-plus in sales and created a model for hiding criminal activity from law enforcement and seen here in a photo from Oct. 2, 2013, was sentenced to life in prison. Credit: AP

Bryan B. of Boston, age 25, was found dead in his apartment in 2013, with a belt in his left hand, brown heroin and a syringe next to him. His laptop had the Silk Road black market drug website bookmarked, and evidence indicated heroin and needles he bought on the site from "mrgood247" had arrived a few days before he died.

His father, Richard, in a letter filed in federal court in Manhattan this week, urged U.S. District Judge Katherine Forrest to mete out the "most severe sentence the law will allow" when she sentences Silk Road founder Ross Ulbricht on Friday .

"The scheme was diabolical," wrote Richard, whose last name was redacted. "It eliminated every obstacle that would keep serious drugs away from anyone who was tempted . . . Bryan, who was fighting off urges to try heroin again, was simply overpowered by the combination of convenience and anonymity."

But dozens of supporters of Ulbricht, 31, the Texas-born former Eagle Scout from California, have urged the judge to sentence him to the shortest term possible, portraying Silk Road as a mistake born of youth and naivete. His father, Kirk, is among them.

"He didn't start the Silk Road out of greed," the elder Ulbricht wrote. " . . . He did it because he had an idealistic vision of freedom for all of us. Just as the French Revolution was born of an idealistic idea of freedom, and then became a nightmare that consumed its founders, so reads the story of Silk Road."

Ulbricht was busted in 2013, but only after the site did an alleged $200-million-plus in sales over two years, using an encrypted part of the Internet and digital bitcoin currency to preserve anonymity and create a new model for hiding criminal activity from law enforcement.

Convicted of drug trafficking earlier this year, he faces a mandatory minimum of 20 years in prison, but the two fathers' colliding views echo disputes Forrest must now resolve over whether he should get more -- up to life in prison -- and Silk Road's legacy.

Prosecutors portray Ulbricht as a greed-driven entrepreneur who made $18 million in bitcoin and didn't care about who got hurt. They want Forrest to focus on Bryan B. and five other drug-related deaths, as well as Silk Road's alleged role in deepening the addictions of others.

The defense, however, says no particular death can be definitively linked to Ulbricht, and describes him as an entrepreneur driven by free-market theories who set up Silk Road in a way that may have saved lives by creating an alternative to violent street dealing, using vendor ratings to ensure "safe" drugs, and hosting a physician's advice forum.

"While Silk Road was the largest such web site in history, it was also the most responsible drug marketplace in history as a result of its ingrained harm reduction ethos," defense lawyer Josh Dratel argued in his sentencing letter.

Forrest has shown interest in the defense argument, requesting academic research on the effects of so-called cryptomarkets like Silk Road, but the government scoffs.

"Praising Silk Road for including 'harm reduction measures' is akin to applauding a heroin dealer for handing out a clean needle with every dime bag," prosecutors Serrin Turner and Tim Howard wrote.

The two sides are also at odds over the deterrent value of a long sentence. Ulbricht's lawyers contend tough sentencing will never quell demand for drugs, and say drug sales over the "dark Web" by successor sites to Silk Road grew after Ulbricht's arrest.

"The notion that deterrence will somehow curb illegal drug sales on the Internet . . . is fanciful," they noted. "We might as well try to stop the world from spinning forward to the future."

But prosecutors draw the opposite lesson.

"Ulbricht's conviction is the first of its kind, and his sentencing is being closely watched," they told Forrest. "The court has an opportunity to send a clear message to anyone tempted to follow his example."

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