Alleged Silk Road mastermind Ross Ulbricht’s trial began this morning in a New York City courtroom, where he faces life in prison for accusations that he managed and operated the now-infamous online black market under the pseudonym Dread Pirate Roberts.
Ulbricht entered the courtroom in the US District Court for the Southern District of New York at 09:20 local time with his legal team led by attorney Joshua Dratel by his side. He faces four narcotics charges and three charges related to computer hacking, trafficking fraudulent identification documents and money laundering conspiracy, respectively.
Many following Ulbricht’s trial see it as a benchmark case that will set precedents for online crime and privacy on the Internet. Another vital part of the Silk Road story is bitcoin, the sole form of payment that was used on the illicit website.
The government seized 144,336 bitcoins worth more than $39m at today’s price from Ulbricht’s laptop when he was arrested in a public library in October 2013. Nearly 80,000 of these bitcoins have since been auctioned off by US Marshals.
Setting the stage
Judge Katherine Forrest began the day by welcoming the room filled with lawyers, press and Ulbricht’s family, announcing that jury selection would be the first item of the agenda.
Potential jurors were brought into the courtroom at 10:30. Judge Forrest detailed some of the procedures ahead and also provided relevant background information about the case. She then selected the first group of potential jurors for questioning in the jury box.
Before reading off Ulbricht’s seven charges from his indictment, Forrest explicitly stated to the jurors that an indictment is just an accusation of crime, and not proof of the crime itself – Ulbricht nodded in agreement as Forrest explained that the defendant is “innocent until proven guilty” by the US government.
Judge Forrest made specific reference to bitcoin when reading off Ulbricht’s money laundering conspiracy charge.
After mentioning that bitcoin was the payment method used on the Silk Road, Forrest told the potential jurors that Ulbricht’s charges allege that he “designed the Silk Road’s payment system to conceal the website’s activity from the government”.
A number of questions were then asked to jurors to assess whether they could make unbiased decisions about the trial. Judge Forrest asked Ulbricht – who was wearing a suit and tie – to identify himself by standing and then asked the group of 16 potential jurors whether they had any bias against him. Nobody spoke up.
The judge also acknowledged that this trial has already attracted protestors outside of the courthouse, and that it will likely be receiving attention in the media throughout its duration.
A final jury was selected in the afternoon and opening statements were then made both by the prosecution and the defense.
Dratel’s opening statement revealed a new narrative to the defense team’s strategy of proving that Ulbricht is not guilty on all seven counts. The defense attorney admitted that Ulbricht is the creator of the Silk Road, but that he ultimately passed along the responsibility of running the site to the “real” Dread Pirate Roberts, only to be left framed once that person realized law enforcement was closing in.
On the prosecuting end, attorney Timothy Howard’s opening statement reiterated that the government planned to prove that Ulbricht was actively involved as the mastermind behind all of Silk Road’s operations. Howard also referenced one of Ulbricht’s college friends that will be called to the witness stand to testify about Ulbricht allegedly bragging to him about running the website.
A long road ahead
Forrest explained to the room that the entire trial will likely last four to six weeks and cautioned jurors not to do any outside research or pay attention to media reports in that time. Outside of the courtroom, though, the ripple effects of the original Silk Road are still being felt.
Earlier this week, a spawn of the original online black market, Silk Road Reloaded, made news by migrating from operating on the Tor network to the anonymous, decentralized I2P network.
With Ulbricht’s arrest and multiple shutdowns of online dark markets including the Silk Road and Silk Road 2.0, the US government has made clear that cybercrime of this nature is high on its priority list.
As Ulbricht’s trial progresses and black markets continue to proliferate on the Internet, the implications of the first Silk Road will become even more clear for all to see.
Images via Tom Sharkey for CoinDesk