Ethereum co-founder Vitalik Buterin has added his voice to the chorus of people asking a federal court in New York for leniency in the upcoming sentencing of former Ethereum developer Virgil Griffith.
Griffith was arrested in November 2019 after giving a presentation on cryptocurrency and blockchain technology at a North Korean crypto conference in April of that year. He was charged with violating U.S. sanctions law and, in September 2021, pleaded guilty in an agreement with federal prosecutors that could see him serve up to 6.5 years in prison.
In a letter to U.S. District Judge Kevin Castel of the Southern District of New York, Buterin detailed his seven-year friendship with Griffith, with whom he met in 2013 and began collaborating on research in 2016. In 2018, Griffith formally joined Ethereum as a developer after Buterin said he “convinced him to agree.”
Buterin wrote about Griffith’s kind and peaceful nature – which also played heavily in many of the nearly 40 other letters written to Castel from Buterin’s family, friends and community members, including a homeless man Griffith met at a Waffle House while on bail in Alabama in 2020. The man’s letter to the court credits Griffith with helping him get a general educational development (GED) degree and finding steady work as a barber.
“Virgil sees the good in everyone [except] spiders. They make him jumpy,” the man, Eugene Hays, wrote to Castel.
That goodness, Buterin wrote, “left a lasting legacy in the Ethereum Foundation and the wider community,” as well as on Buterin himself.
“[Griffith] has also left some deep personal changes in myself,” Buterin wrote Castel. “His attitudes and actions over the years helped to foster an open-mindedness and an orientation towards cooperation that guide my actions to this day, in a way that was absent from my personality five years ago.”
Buterin also described Griffth’s curiosity about other cultures, which led him to move to Singapore in 2016 and his work to make Ethereum compatible with Islamic finance law.
Though Buterin did not directly connect this curiosity to Griffith’s decision to travel to North Korea, Griffith’s lawyer wrote that the trip was “the culmination of Virgil’s unique and unfortunate curiosity and obsession with North Korea.”
In a letter from Griffith himself to the judge, he writes: “I became obsessed with seeing the country before it fell, akin to someone offered the chance to see East Berlin in its final days before the Wall came down.”
Griffith’s lawyers, as well as his loved ones, said they hope his remorse will earn him a shorter sentence.
They have asked the court to consider allowing him to serve a two-year sentence and allowing him to receive credit for time served in jail and a period of three years’ supervised release, including 270 days of home detention.
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