Accused Silk Road drug baron goes on trial in NY
The proceedings against 30-year-old Ross Ulbricht, from San Fransisco, has been heralded a landmark case in the shadowy world of online crime, as well as surveillance and privacy.
Prosecutors say Ulbricht created, owned and operated the Silk Road website that allowed thousands of criminals in Europe and North America to launder hundreds of millions of dollars for three years.
From January 2011 until October 2013, when the website was shut down by the FBI, prosecutors say Ulbricht was the true identity of the online handle "Dread Pirate Roberts"—the anti-hero in fairy tale film "The Princess Bride"—who set up, owned and operated the underworld site.
He was arrested in a San Francisco library working on a laptop in October 2013 and charged with narcotics trafficking, criminal enterprise, computer hacking and money laundering.
Ulbricht, who appeared in court Tuesday dressed in a dark blazer, beige pants, white shirt and striped tie, pleads not guilty to seven separate charges.
He faces life behind bars if convicted, and is being represented by prominent lawyer Joshua Dratel, who has defended convicted terrorists.
The trial, expected to last four to six weeks, opened with jury selection on Tuesday under US District Judge Katherine Forrest.
Ulbricht sat stiffly next to his lawyers and briefly stood to be identified during the process of whittling down dozens of prospective jurors to the 12 men and women, with four alternates who will hear the case.
He sat in silence, his face pale under a shock of dark-brown hair and his mouth turned downward, after waving and smiling to his family who greeted his arrival in court from the gallery.
Silk Road allegedly offered nearly 13,000 listings for drugs, including heroin, cocaine, ecstasy and LSD sold by agents in more than 10 countries across Europe and North America.
It also allegedly sold malicious software, pirated content and offered fake driver licenses, passports, social security cards, utility bills and car insurance records.
Protest outside court
Family and friends are convinced of Ulbricht's innocence, setting up a "Free Ross" website that has raised $339,000 for his defense.
But while they portray a gentle and generous character, a much-loved brother and son, prosecutors paint a very different picture of the former scholarship student.
They dub him the brains behind "the most sophisticated and extensive criminal marketplace on the Internet" who pocketed commissions worth "tens of millions of dollars" from illicit sales.
The government alleges he was so wedded to his life of crime that he solicited six murders-for-hire to keep the scheme intact, although there is no evidence any killings actually took place.
Much of the trial is likely to focus on the levels of secrecy to which Silk Road went to conceal their activities from the law.
A few protesters gathered outside the Lower Manhattan court house on Tuesday holding up posters that said "Web Hosting is Not a Crime! WTF?"
A network concealed the true IP addresses of computers and thereby the identities of users, and included a Bitcoin-based payment system, which also concealed the identities and locations of users.
US authorities say they seized 173,991 Bitcoins, a virtual currency, worth over $150 million, as part of the operation.
Ulbricht faces a maximum sentence of life imprisonment if found guilty of narcotics conspiracy and criminal enterprise each, with lesser sentences for the other charges.
In November, a second version of Silk Road was shut down and alleged operator Blake Benthall charged on hacking, money laundering and trafficking charges in San Francisco.
Three others have also been charged over the operation.
© 2015 AFP