Ross Ulbricht is finally getting his day in court, 15 months after plainclothes FBI agents grabbed him in the science fiction section of a San Francisco library and accused him of running the billion-dollar online drug bazaar known as the Silk Road. It’s a day that anyone who cares about crime, punishment and privacy in the shadows of the internet will be watching.
If Ulbricht doesn’t take a last-minute plea deal and his trial begins as scheduled in a New York courtroom Tuesday, it will be the most significant case of its kind—in many ways the only case of its kind—to play out in front of a jury. The Silk Road anonymous drug market he’s accused of creating was an unprecedented experiment in online anarchy and black market commerce. And Ulbricht’s insistence until now on taking his case to trial means its fundamental issues will be argued in public.
Ulbricht, 29, faces charges that include running a narcotics, hacking and money laundering conspiracy, as well as a “kingpin” charge usually reserved for mafia dons and drug lords. The case against him is likely strong; prosecutors already have shown in pre-trial hearings that they caught Ulbricht with his laptop seemingly logged into a Silk Road page called “Mastermind,” showing a detailed accounting of the site’s activities and finances. They’ve also revealed that they found a logbook on his hard drive and a journal that allegedly detailed his day-to-day activities running the site. (Stringer Bell was right, by the way: Don’t take notes on your criminal conspiracy.)
But Ulbricht’s defense team, led by renowned terrorism-case defense attorney Joshua Dratel and financed in part by donations from bitcoin mogul Roger Ver, won’t make it easy for prosecutors. We may see a lively, dramatic and precedent-setting trial.