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Silk Road Operator Ross Ulbricht Convicted On All Counts


A federal jury in New York has returned with a verdict in the case against Ross Ulbricht. He's a California man accused of creating and running the website Silk Road, an anonymous online drug market. Federal officials shut it down in October, 2013. NPR's Steve Henn joins us now to talk more about it. And, Steve, what did the jury find?

STEVE HENN, BYLINE: Well, the jury's convicted Ulbricht on all seven counts. He was accused of drug trafficking, conspiracy to commit money laundering, conspiracy to commit computer hacking, and a so-called kingpin charge. He now faces a minimum of 30 years in prison. The government alleged that Ulbricht was known online as the Dread Pirate Roberts, and prosecutors argued that he set up this online website known as the Silk Road. Ulbricht's defense attorney took the unusual step of admitting in opening arguments that Ulbricht did, in fact, create the Silk Road. However, the defense argued that the site, which only accepted the online currency Bitcoin and allowed users to trade anonymously, began as a kind of experiment. Ulbricht's lawyers said he soon sort of got scared of what was happening and decided to hand over the day-to-day operation of the site to someone else.

CORNISH: What was the thinking behind that strategy?

HENN: Well, you know, by admitting that Ulbricht created the site but denying that he ran it up until he was arrested, I think the defense was trying to force the prosecution to prove each individual element in these charges. As part of this conspiracy charge, Ulbricht was accused of attempting to arrange the murder-for-hire of five people. The defense strategy was to claim that Ulbricht didn't actually do any of these awful things. They said he was actually set up as a fall guy by the true Dread Pirate Roberts, or possibly other figures who bought and sold Bitcoin online. And to bolster that case, they tried to present him as this kind of mild-mannered, hippie, libertarian. The defense's active case was short. It consisted mostly of character witnesses. And in his closing arguments, Ulbricht's attorney said, quote, "the Internet is not what it seems." So clearly he was hoping to sow doubt in jurors' minds, hoping to get at least one juror to doubt the government's argument that Ulbricht was capable of making these kinds of cold-blooded, calculating decisions.

CORNISH: Steve, remind us - just how big was Silk Road?

HENN: Well, you know, it was really enormous. Prosecutors presented evidence that it facilitated more than a billion dollars in illegal drug transactions. And as its creator, Ulbricht took a cut of each transaction on the site. In fact, one of most damning pieces of evidence against him was his decision to claim ownership of millions of dollars in Bitcoin that could be traced back to transactions on the Silk Road. But that really wasn't the only evidence. The FBI and the DEA arrested Ulbricht at a public library in San Francisco while he was logged into the administrative accounts that helped control the site. They grabbed his laptop before he could shut it down, and on it they discovered a journal that chronicled his creation of this illegal market. In the end, jurors just seemed to find the evidence overwhelming. They deliberated for just over three hours before returning with a guilty verdict.

CORNISH: Finally, what does this mean for the online market for illegal drugs - what kind of effect?

HENN: Well, you know, it only took a few weeks after Ross Ulbricht's arrest and the shutdown of the original Silk Road before several new anonymous drug markets popped up again online. You know, one was even called Silk Road 2.0. Its first administrator went by the name the Dread Pirate Roberts. Other sites followed. And just a year after Ulbricht's arrest, there were dozens of these sites out there. Then late last fall, the FBI and the DEA took down almost 20 sites, I think, and coordinated raids that, you know, took place all over the world. And today the only sites that are still up are ones in places where it seems possible to bribe the police.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Steve Henn. Steve, thanks.

HENN: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Henn is NPR's technology correspondent based in Menlo Park, California, who is currently on assignment with Planet Money. An award winning journalist, he now covers the intersection of technology and modern life - exploring how digital innovations are changing the way we interact with people we love, the institutions we depend on and the world around us. In 2012 he came frighteningly close to crashing one of the first Tesla sedans ever made. He has taken a ride in a self-driving car, and flown a drone around Stanford's campus with a legal expert on privacy and robotics.