MANHATTAN (CN) — Trying to overturn a life sentence, Silk Road founder Ross Ulbricht’s attorneys have argued that admitted corruption by two undercover agents bolsters their claims that their client was framed.
At a press conference announcing a possible third crooked agent, defense attorney Josh Dratel compared the wealth of seemingly damning digital evidence against his client to the “fake news” controversy surrounding Facebook.
“When you talk about, ‘What is the integrity on the internet?’ What is the integrity of digital communication? What is the integrity of the digital world?’ This fits right in with that,” Dratel told a roomful of reporters in his Wall Street office on Tuesday.
“It’s happening all around us,” he said.
In essence, Dratel challenged reporters to believe that the mountain of forensic evidence linking Ulbricht to the reins of the underground drug website the Silk Road had been nothing more than a government fabrication that the press disseminated in the biggest fake-tech-news explosion of 2015.
Although 32-year-old Ulbricht admits that he created the Silk Road website, he denies retaining control over it after it devolved into a Wild West filled with extortion, cyanide, hit men and double-crossing.
In October, Dratel called the integrity of the government’s evidence into question in an appeal focused largely on two crooked federal agents: Secret Service agent Shaun Bridges and Drug Enforcement Agency official Carl Force.
Both members of Baltimore’s Silk Road Task Force admitted to swiping hundreds of thousands of dollars in bitcoins for themselves from the websites they were supposed to be investigating.
The Manhattan U.S. Attorney’s office has previously noted that it convicted Force and Bridges for their crimes, but prosecutors insisted that no evidence supports the claim that these men tried to set up Ulbricht.
On Tuesday afternoon, Dratel and his co-counsel Lindsay Lewis unveiled more pieces of the digital puzzle.
They claimed that their forensic analysis discovered tampering of a Silk Road forum database to delete communications related to unknown users “notwonderful,” “albertpacino” and “alpacino.”
Although uncertain whether the handles belonged to one or more users, Dratel said they were associated with Silk Road’s owner “Dread Pirate Roberts,” which the government identifies as Ulbricht’s online alter ego.
Ulbricht, on the other hand, insists that — like the fictional Dread Pirate Roberts of “The Princess Bride” — he was only one of many people who assumed that identity online.
Regardless of who is behind the pseudonym, Dread Pirate Roberts offered “alpacino” $500 a week to act as a double-agent between the DEA and Silk Road, and the government acknowledged in a letter that it was investigating whether Force had been behind the alpacino handle.
But Ulbricht’s defense attorneys believe that alpacino must have been a third man.
“Someone whom the government… believed was inside the law enforcement investigation was selling information to DPR,” Dratel said. “That someone made an effort – a concerted effort – to wipe clean the communications between that person and DPR from four different pieces of discovery.
“However, there was a fifth piece that that person was unaware of,” Dratel continued. “It was a working file created by an administrator that verifies what happened for at least a certain period of time.”
But Dratel said a critical period was missing from the file – the final six weeks before Ulbricht’s arrest.
Awaiting the Second Circuit’s ruling on their appeal, Dratel declined to present his new evidence to the court. He said that since it was not in the original record, it would bog down what the defense believes to be a strong appeal.
Nor did Dratel present his findings to the government in advance of the press conference, but he reminded prosecutors that they are professionally obligated to send all exculpatory evidence to Ulbricht’s defense team as this issue develops.
“If they haven’t investigated, then the government’s derelict in raising the ‘alpacino’ issue and then dropping it,” he said.
Ross Ulbricht’s mother, Lynn Ulbricht, who was a regular fixture at her son’s trial, sat beside Dratel at the press conference.
She added later in an email that the development fulfilled a prediction her son’s attorney had made to her.
“Joshua Dratel told me a long time ago that we only know the tip of the iceberg as regards the corruption in this case,” she said. “Now we see another big chunk of ice revealed. If this backup of the forum database had not been saved or discovered, no one would be the wiser. This begs the question: how much more tampering is there? Unfortunately we may never know, as it’s the nature of digital evidence that it’s easily changed, planted or deleted without a trace.
“That my son — or anyone — would get a life sentence without parole based on such vulnerable evidence, especially when it’s been corrupted, is a travesty of justice,” she finished.