Ross Ulbricht, founder of the deep web drug market Silk Road, is certain to spend the rest of his life in prison after his final appeal was rejected by the Second Circuit Court this week. Two years ago, Ulbricht, known online as the Dread Pirate Roberts, was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for drug trafficking and money laundering, among other assorted charges.
In the initial sentencing ruling, Judge Katherine Forrest explained that the life sentence was intended to send a message to other would-be online drug traffickers. However, that message seemingly fell on deaf ears, as illegal sales on a number of Silk Road-inspired sites doubled in the weeks following the announcement of the sentence.
In the appeal, Ulbricht's attorneys argued against the unexpected harshness of the life sentence, especially given the non-violent nature of his crimes. His attorneys also argued that the involvement of at least two federal agents who were later convicted of corruption tainted the case, and that law enforcement performed illegal searches during the investigation.
Regardless, the three judges of the appellate court affirmed the lower court's sentence. However, the judges did share their concerns about the country's drug laws. “Reasonable people may and do disagree about the social utility of harsh sentences for the distribution of controlled substances, or even of criminal prohibition of their sale and use at all,” the judges wrote in the ruling. “It is very possible that, at some future point, we will come to regard these policies as tragic mistakes and adopt less punitive and more effective methods of reducing the incidence and costs of drug use.”
“At this point in our history, however, the democratically-elected representatives of the people have opted for a policy of prohibition, backed by severe punishment,” the judges continued, no doubt referencing Attorney General Jeff Sessions' recent memo calling for courts to levy the harshest possible sentences against offenders.
Despite their misgivings, the appellate court ruled that the lower court did have the right to sentence Ulbricht to life. “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,” the judges wrote. “Although we might not have imposed the same sentence ourselves in the first instance, on the facts of this case a life sentence was ‘within the range of permissible decisions’ that the district court could have reached.”