LYN ULBRICHT MOVED to Colorado last year. She uprooted her life to be near her son, Ross Ulbricht, who is an inmate in a federal maximum security prison an hour outside of Colorado Springs.
Ross is serving two concurrent life sentences for his role in the founding and running of Silk Road, a dark web bazaar where users could buy and sell drugs and other illicit items, often using bitcoin. The charges against him included money laundering, computer hacking, and conspiracy to traffic narcotics. In a separate indictment, he was charged with procuring murder. Though that charge was dropped, Judge Katherine Forrest of the Southern District of New York cited it as central to her decision to go well beyond the minimum sentence of 10 years and instead imprison him for life without parole.
At his sentencing, Ross made a modest request: "I've had my youth, and I know you must take away my middle years, but please leave me my old age.... Please leave a small light at the end of the tunnel." Although Forrest was not moved, the Ulbrichts hope the Supreme Court may feel differently. If their case is accepted, it could trigger a landmark decision about digital privacy and autonomy, as well as about what responsibility the creators of online tools bear for what others do with them. Reason's Katherine Mangu-Ward spoke with Lyn by phone in April, shortly after she got a small piece of encouraging news from the high court about Ross' appeal.
Reason: Since Ross' conviction, there have been quite a few revelations about prosecutorial misconduct and other questionable practices related to his case. Can you describe what has happened?
Lyn Ulbricht: Even pretrial, there were so many issues. For example, the government deprived Ross of bail, based partially on allegations of murder for hire, then two months later dropped those charges. And those charges were never brought to trial. He was never tried or convicted for those charges, and yet Judge Forrest used those charges to enhance a very unreasonable sentence for all nonviolent charges.
That is one of the questions that [we're bringing to the Supreme] Court: Is it constitutional for a judge to use uncharged, unproven allegations to enhance an unreasonable sentence? That deprives Ross of his jury trial rights.
By the way, there is still an indictment [on the murder-for-hire allegation] in Maryland. It's been languishing there for almost five years, unprosecuted, based on evidence supplied by Carl Mark Force, a corrupt [Drug Enforcement Administration] agent who's now in prison.
That was another one of the things that was a huge issue: The existence of this corrupt agent was precluded from trial. The jury was not allowed to know about him or another corrupt agent who was working for the [National Security Agency] and the Secret Service at the time, Shaun Bridges. The defense didn't even know about his existence until after trial.
So this was not allowed to be known to the jury. And it seems to me that that could have easily led to casting a reasonable doubt on Ross' guilt. These people not only stole over a million dollars [from Silk Road] using their access as investigators, but they had the ability to act as Dread Pirate Roberts, the pseudonym of whoever...