Former Ethereum Developer Virgil Griffith Sentenced to 5+ Years in Prison for North Korea Trip

Griffith previously pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to violate international sanctions for giving a talk at a crypto conference in Pyongyang in 2019.

Apr 12, 2022 at 4:28 p.m. UTC
Updated Apr 12, 2022 at 5:27 p.m. UTC

Cheyenne Ligon is a CoinDesk news reporter with a focus on crypto regulation and policy. She has no significant crypto holdings.

Former Ethereum developer Virgil Griffith will serve 63 months in prison and pay a $100,000 fine for helping North Koreans use cryptocurrencies to evade sanctions.

In September, Griffith pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to violate international sanctions against North Korea. Griffith was arrested in November 2019 after giving a talk at a cryptocurrency conference in Pyongyang in April of that year.

Though the crime carried a maximum penalty of 20 years, Griffith’s plea deal with federal prosecutors brought the sentence down to a range of 63 to 78 months – approximately five to 6.5 years. Griffith has already spent approximately two years in custody, though he was released on bail for 14 of those months. The court will count the remaining 10 months as time served.

The sentence handed down by U.S. District Judge Kevin Castel of the Southern District of New York on Tuesday is on the lower end of the prosecution’s suggested sentencing guidelines, and is in line with the sentence recommended by the Department of Probation.

Defense asks for leniency

Before Griffith was sentenced, he and his attorneys had a chance to address the court with any last objections or remarks.

Griffith, clad in a khaki prison uniform, exchanged glances with his elderly parents and several friends in the courtroom.

Brian Klein, Griffith’s lead attorney, urged Judge Castel to consider factors that he believed had not been accounted for in the prosecution’s sentencing guidelines, including the harsh conditions at Brooklyn’s Metropolitan Detention Center (MDC), where Griffith has been held.

Klein described “several really trying and inhumane conditions” Griffith experienced at MDC, including extended solitary quarantines due to COVID-19 outbreaks, no family visits, limited access to blankets and warm clothing, and even being forced to use his sink as a toilet.

Klein also said Griffith has been limited to two or less meals a day, usually peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, because gangs in MDC control the kitchens and the commissary.

Because of the harsh conditions, Klein asked the judge to consider counting the 10 months Griffith has spent in prison as double, and asked that his client be moved to Allenwood Low, a low-security federal prison in Pennsylvania, where he might be closer to extended family.

Klein also informed Judge Castel of a recent psychological assessment of Griffith, done in prison, which apparently found him to be suffering from two personality disorders, Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) and Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder (OCPD). His defense said the disorders explained his “obsession” with North Korea and his disregard for the warnings of his family, friends, employer, and the government not to travel to North Korea.

Griffith, Klein said, has been “dedicated to therapy” and was found by the psychiatrist to be “treatable” and “not likely to reoffend.”

When Griffith himself was given an opportunity to speak, he told the court that he had spent time in prison thinking about how he “genuinely, arrogantly, and erroneously thought I knew better,” than his loved ones who warned him against going to North Korea.

“I’ve learned my lesson,” Griffith said. “I am still profoundly embarrassed that I am here, and of what I have done.”

A wannabe ‘crypto hero’?

The court did not appear to be moved by Griffith’s claims to have learned his lesson, or his promises not to reoffend.

“There is an argument that Virgil Griffith is a kind and thoughtful man,” Castel told the courtroom, describing a version of events in which “at great personal sacrifice to himself” Griffith traveled to North Korea to share educational materials about blockchain technology and returned to persecution.

“But those are not the facts,” Castel said. “That is not what happened.”

“What you see here is an intentionality…and a desire to educate people on how to evade sanctions,” Castel said.

Judge Castel read a series of text messages and emails from Griffith in which the defendant admits to sharing information with North Korea for the express purpose of helping the repressive Kim regime evade sanctions.

What the judge found most damning, perhaps, was a photo of Griffith presenting at the conference, wearing a traditional North Korean suit and standing in front of a blackboard on which it read “No sanctions!” with a smiley face.

“The fact of the matter is Virgil Griffith…hoped to come home to Singapore or elsewhere as a crypto hero,” Castel said. “To be admired and praised for standing up to government sanctions, for his fearlessness and nobility.”

Castel blasted Griffith’s history of cooperation with the government both before and after his trip to Pyongyang – held up by the defense as evidence of his good nature – as narcissism.

“This guy is willing to play both sides of the street as long as he is the center of attention,” Castel said.

Both the judge and the prosecution referenced the ongoing war in Ukraine, as well as the U.S. government’s use of sanctions against Russia, to justify the need for a harsh sentence in order to deter Griffith and “similarly-situated others” from future violations of U.S. sanctions laws.

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Cheyenne Ligon is a CoinDesk news reporter with a focus on crypto regulation and policy. She has no significant crypto holdings.

CoinDesk - Unknown

Cheyenne Ligon is a CoinDesk news reporter with a focus on crypto regulation and policy. She has no significant crypto holdings.

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