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Judge Narrows Scope of Silk Road Trial

MANHATTAN (CN) - When trial starts for alleged Silk Road founder Ross Ulbricht next month, federal prosecutors can use the website's narcotics sales evidence against him. They can introduce Ulbricht's fake IDs into evidence. They can even show a jury emails related to murder-for-hire allegations.

But they cannot throw every illegal activity that allegedly took place on his website against him in court, a federal judge ruled at a hearing on Wednesday.

U.S. District Judge Katherine Forrest's finding narrows the government's case against Ulbricht, whom prosecutors call the chief of "the most sophisticated and extensive criminal marketplace on the Internet."

Through anonymous, nearly untraceable Bitcoin transactions, Silk Road facilitated "hundreds of kilograms of illegal drugs and other illicit goods and services to well over a hundred thousand buyers worldwide," the indictment alleges.

Prosecutors believe that Ulbricht is "Dread Pirate Roberts," the pseudonym of the site's owner.

With his trial weeks away, the parties met for a final pretrial conference where Forrest warned prosecutors that their conspiracy tries to prove too much.

"I want to say to the government that I'm troubled by the breadth of your theory on the nature of your conspiracy," she said.

She explained that the indictment lumps a wide range of wares - from narcotics to knockoff Gucci belts to counterfeit currencies and more - under the same alleged plot.

"I find that extraordinarily broad," she said.

Ulbricht's lawyer, Joshua Dratel, has objected to that aspect of the case too, and he has argued that this only showed that Silk Road kept a hands-off approach to what its users sold. He compared prosecuting the website for conspiracy to charging AT&T, or landlords, for plotting with drug dealers who use their phones or live in their buildings.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Serrin Turner claims that Ulbricht was very much a part of Silk Road's trade, and even grew magic mushrooms to test sales on the website.

"I know that the defense wants to argue this was a neutral site," he said. "The point is, this was a marketplace that caters to criminals."

Forrest was not persuaded.

"What I'm concerned about is the conspiracy of all things illegal," she said.

Dratel added that there was an "apples and oranges aspect" to the government's approach.

"At the end of the day, we have this giant tail wagging this tiny dog," he said.

Although Dratel succeeded in narrowing the case against Ulbricht, he was unable to bar some of the more sensational evidence against him.

Forrest ruled that fake IDs that Ulbricht allegedly bought are fair game for trial.

Since Ulbricht allegedly brought those IDs on Silk Road, the evidence could be used to show that he tried "a sampling of the goods," and had a "consciousness of guilt," Forrest ruled.

Even though Ulbricht is not charged with murder-for-hire in New York, the jury here can also see emails suggesting that he hired a hit man to kill a Silk Road user who threatened to release the identities of thousands of other customers. Ulbricht was charged for this alleged conspiracy in Maryland.

But Silk Road's trade of online music, guns, armory, silencers and the rest of it have no place in next month's trial.

"You have quite a story, without all of that," Forrest told prosecutors.

The judge also forbade either side from commenting on Ulbricht's widely reported libertarian politics.

Forbes delved into Ulbricht's college activism, support for Tea Party intellectual godfather Ron Paul and a mission statement of Silk Road two years ago to hammer home this point.

It then quoted Dread Pirate Roberts as having written: "Silk Road was founded on libertarian principles and continues to be operated on them. 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."

Forrest warned that sentiments like these are not for the jury.

"Whether you like the politics or don't like the politics is totally irrelevant to whether the government has met its burden of proof," she said.

Jury selection will begin on Jan. 5.

Editor's Note: The original version of this article attributed a quote from Dread Pirate Roberts to his suspected real-life alter ego, Ross Ulbricht. Courthouse News regrets the phrasing.

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