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Silk Road Founder Loses Life Sentence Appeal

The Silk Road Saga Continues

Ross Ulbricht, the infamous founder of the Silk Road online marketplace, has lost his appeal against the life sentence handed down to him in 2015. But, take a deep breath. This saga is far from over.In 2013, Ulbricht was arrested and charged with running the underground Silk Road website that facilitated over $180 million in illegal drug sales and other illicit goods3 He was convicted on numerous counts in 2015 and given not one, but two life sentences plus 40 years. 5 A harsh punishment, no doubt.His legal team appealed the draconian sentence, arguing it was “a horrendously excessive” penalty for crimes that didn‘t involve direct violence. 5 But on May 31st, 2017, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Ulbricht’s convictions and life sentence. 3So what does this mean for the 33-year-old? Is he destined to grow old behind bars? Not if his supporters have anything to say about it.

The Dread Pirate Roberts’ Loyal Crew

From the moment Ulbricht was arrested, a loyal crew of family, friends, and crypto advocates have been fighting tooth and nail for his release. His mom Lyn has been at the helm, leading public campaigns and selling her son‘s artwork from prison to raise funds. 5“It’s just a horrendously excessive sentence for something where there was no violence involved,” she told reporters5 Even celebrities like Pussy Riot‘s Nadya Tolokonnikova have joined the chorus, calling Ulbricht’s double life sentence “simply unjust.” 5Their efforts haven’t gone unnoticed. In his final weeks, President Trump reportedly considered pardoning the Silk Road founder before ultimately deciding against it. 5 The Supreme Court also refused to hear Ulbricht’s appeal in 2018, narrowing his path to freedom. 5But this crew doesn’t give up easily. In fact, they’ve now recruited a powerful new ally – blockchain technology itself.

The DAO That Wants to Free Ross

In December 2021, thousands flocked to a new crypto-powered movement called FreeRossDAO, a “decentralized autonomous organization” aimed at, you guessed it, freeing Ross Ulbricht. 5The idea? Pool funds from DAO members to purchase a collection of Ulbricht’s artwork and writings from prison at auction. 5 The NFT sale raised over $6.2 million from nearly 3,000 donors across the globe. 5It’s an ambitious plan, no doubt. But the DAO members believe securing ownership of Ulbricht’s intellectual property could give them leverage to negotiate his release or launch future legal battles5“We’re trying to free an individual, but we’re also trying to free humanity from the criminalization of the pursuit of human rights and liberties,” said one anonymous DAO member. 5

The Silk Road Appeal: Key Arguments

So what were the key arguments in Ulbricht’s appeal that was ultimately rejected? And what’s next for the legal fight?First, his lawyers claimed the life sentence itself was unreasonable and a violation of the 8th Amendment prohibiting cruel and unusual punishment3 They highlighted Ulbricht’s lack of prior criminal history and non-violent conduct3The judges acknowledged the sentence was harsh, stating “Courts have the power to condemn a young man to die in prison, and judges must exercise that power only in a small number of cases after the deepest thought and reflection.” 3 However, they found it was still “within the range of permissible decisions.” 3Second, Ulbricht’s team argued that the corrupt acts of two federal agents involved in the investigation tainted the evidence against him. 3 Specifically, they claimed agents Carl Force and Shaun Bridges could have planted incriminating files on the Silk Road servers to frame Ulbricht. 3But the court dismissed this, stating “Ulbricht still has not shown how the agents‘ corrupt behavior is exculpatory.” 3 They saw no proof the tainted evidence directly impacted the conviction3Finally, the appeal cited the emotional testimony from parents who lost children to overdoses from Silk Road drugs as unfairly swaying the sentencing judge3 While the judges agreed this was “emotionally wrenching,” they maintained federal judges can set aside such sympathies. 3So where does this leave Ulbricht’s legal battle? His pro bono lawyers at the Office of the Federal Public Defender say they are reviewing the ruling and evaluating next steps3 The FreeRossDAO also remains committed to the cause.“We’re just getting started,” said one DAO member. “This was never about a single court case.” 5

The Silk Road’s Lingering Impact

Love it or hate it, the Silk Road left an indelible mark on the darknet markets and cryptocurrency worlds. Let’s break down its legacy:On the positive side, Silk Road popularized Bitcoin and showed its potential for legitimate uses beyond just dark web trading. 5 It was one of the first major real-world apps to use cryptocurrency at scale.The site‘s security measures like Tor browsing and Bitcoin payments also raised the bar for operational security in underground markets. 5 Successors like AlphaBay learned from its strengths and weaknesses.However, Silk Road’s existence and $180 million+ in drug sales fueled the growth of addiction and overdoses. 2 At least six deaths were allegedly linked to substances purchased on the site. 5 It‘s a dark legacy Ulbricht’s supporters can’t ignore.There’s also the question of whether Ulbricht truly upheld the philosophical principles of the “Dread Pirate Roberts” persona he adopted. His alleged attempts to hire hitmen to kill perceived threats like a former employee directly contradict the non-aggression principle he claimed to follow. 3Regardless of where you stand, there’s no denying Silk Road‘s impact as a pioneer and catalyst for the darknet world we know today. Its founder‘s fate could have lasting ripple effects as well.

The Precedent of the Life Sentence

When handing down Ulbricht’s life sentence in 2015, Judge Katherine Forrest made it clear she intended to send a strong message and deterrent. 3“What you did was terribly destructive to our social fabric,” she told Ulbricht. The life term was meant as “a sentence that is a serious deterrent, a signal to anyone who attempts to replicate something like this.” 3So was it an appropriate and measured response? Or does the punishment not fit the crime of non-violent drug crimes and money laundering? Prosecutors pointed to Ulbricht’s attempts to commission murders as justifying such a harsh sentence3 But no actual deaths occurred, and some legal experts argue it sets a dangerous precedent for all future darknet operators to be hit with draconian punishments.“The court‘s rationale renders meaningless any distinction between non-violent and violent crime,” wrote one group of legal scholars in an amicus brief3 They fear it could lead to “a vastly expanded use of life sentences for non-violent crimes.”On the flip side, you could argue the life term was warranted given the sheer scale and impact of Silk Road’s drug trafficking. Ulbricht’s own lawyer admitted at trial the site was “a criminal enterprise of staggering magnitude.” 3There’s also the question of deterrence. If the life sentence deters even a handful of future darknet drug lords and saves lives, was it worth it? Or does it simply create future martyrs and rallying cries like FreeRossDAO?These are thorny philosophical and legal questions with no easy answers. But they underscore the lasting impact Ulbricht’s case could have as a precedent for future dark web prosecutions.

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