MANHATTAN (CN) — In a blockbuster appeal late last year, attorneys for Silk Road founder Ross Ulbricht prompted New York’s Second Circuit to question the justice of sending a young man to die behind bars because he created an underground narcotics website.
That sympathy dried up Wednesday, however, as the three-judge panel upheld life imprisonment for the man behind the deep-web drug bazaar.
Toward the end of a mammoth 139-page ruling, U.S. Circuit Judge Gerard Lynch emphasized that he and his colleagues appreciated the gravity of their decision.
“We do not reach our conclusion lightly,” Lynch wrote on behalf of the unanimous panel. “A life sentence is the second most severe penalty that may be imposed in the federal criminal justice system.”
For Ulbricht’s supporters, however, the sentence is symbolic of prosecutorial overreach in the digital war on drugs and a doomed government effort to control an online trade that defies restraint.
Two years and two days ago, U.S. District Judge Katherine Forrest cast Ulbricht as a pioneering criminal for using encryption technologies to facilitate illicit bitcoin transactions, in a billion-dollar website likened to the eBay of the drug trade.
"What you did was unprecedented, and in breaking that ground as the first person, you sit here as the defendant now having to pay the consequences for that,” Forrest said at a three-hour sentencing hearing on May 29, 2015.
Before imposing the heaviest sentence available, Forrest heard from family members of addicts who overdosed on drugs bought on Silk Road, and spoke candidly about her own qualms about causing pain to Ulbricht’s family.
The judge had been especially outraged by evidence presented at trial that Ulbricht hired hit men to kill five men who posed a threat to his business. Police never found proof that anybody died as the result of a murder-for-hire, and Ulbricht’s defenders note that he was never charged with this crime.
But for Forrest, prosecutors supplied ample evidence of Ulbricht’s intent to kill, showing the jury journal entries, chat logs and bitcoin transfers to would-be assassins.
Poring over what it called an “extraordinarily detailed sentencing transcript,” Judge Lynch said Friday that Ulbricht’s sentencing judge clearly appreciated the importance of her decision “and carried out that responsibility with care and prudence.”
Joining Lynch on the appellate panel were U.S. Circuit Judges Jon Newman and Christopher Droney. At oral arguments in October, the latter had seemed uneasy by Ulbricht’s life sentence.