Tech by VICE

I Was Framed! Accused Silk Road Boss Lays Out Full Defense

Ross Ulbricht was set up, his lawyer argued.

by Kari Paul
Feb 4 2015, 2:20am

Photo: FreeRoss.org

Since the beginning of the trial of Ross Ulbricht, the 30-year-old accused of creating and running internet drug market Silk Road, his defense team has argued that another mastermind actually acted as the pseudonymous Dread Pirate Roberts behind the site, setting Ulbricht up to take the fall. On Tuesday, defense attorney Joshua Dratel finally laid out this theory in full in his closing argument, adding previously unheard details.

"The internet is not what it seems," Dratel began. "The internet permits, and perhaps thrives, on deception and misdirection. You never know who precisely is on the other side of the computer screen."

Dratel spun an alternate version of events: Ulbricht created the site as an "economic experiment," but became too stressed out after running it for just a few months and passed it off to someone else. He said that this new DPR got word that law enforcement was closing in on the site and returned it to Ulbricht, planting mountains of evidence on Ulbricht's laptop to implicate him.

Dratel brought up the hacking materials sold on Silk Road, which the government previously explained to the jury with a video.

"You saw the hacking tools," he told the jury. "There were things that allowed you to take control of someone else's computer. There is a lot you can do to frame someone."

Ulbricht is innocent of all seven charges, Dratel said. It is impossible to prove beyond a reasonable doubt he was behind the site for its entire three-year run, he told the jury.

Throughout the monthlong trial, the prosecution's case seemed to be strong. Prosecutors presented a mountain of evidence found on Ulbricht's laptop at the time of his arrest, including a journal describing the creation and maintenance of Silk Road, thousands of pages of chat logs referencing the site, millions of dollars in Bitcoin transactions, spreadsheets of site assets and more.

Dratel attempted to explain how "DPR and Ulbricht cannot be the same person," arguing all the incriminating files found on Ulbricht's laptop were planted by a nefarious third party.

The Bittorrent filesharing client running on Ulbricht's laptop at the time of his arrest was connected to nine other computers as he downloaded the Colbert Report, Dratel said, and "the open port on his computer" could have allowed someone to plant all of the evidence.

Journals, chats and other evidence could have been manufactured and "sprinkled" with information discovered by hacking Ulbricht's email account and observing his activity on social media.

Dratel also drew attention to the fact that metadata, information contained in a file describing things like its size, creation date, last modified date, can be rewritten. He said, for the first time in the trial, that several of the files on Ulbricht's computer were modified hours after his arrest. Dratel added another apparent revelation: DPR had been paying someone for information in early 2013 and had caught word that law enforcement was closing in.

He also cast doubt on the FBI's analysis of the laptop, which he said crashed after they confiscated it from Ulbricht and "lost the RAM memory," referring to the computer memory used for temporary storage.

"We'll never know what processes were running on the laptop at that time," Dratel said.

A major portion of of Dratel's argument was that the mistakes Ulbricht appears to have made are far too rudimentary to be those of a criminal mastermind.

"Keeping a journal and saving it on your laptop—a little too convenient."

"Saving thousands of chats onto his computer—does that sound like DPR?" he asked the jury. "Keeping a journal and saving it on your laptop—a little too convenient. Does that sound like DPR? Saving PGP keys in a file called 'keys'—does that sound like DPR?"

He again, brought up Mark Karpeles, former CEO of failed Bitcoin exchange Mt. Gox, and Anand Athavale, another person the government once suspected as DPR, as potential alternative perpetrators. He added that the government was "under a lot of pressure to make an arrest," and may have nabbed Ulbricht because he was an easier target.

"The government has never examined their devices," he said of Karpeles and Athavale. "They live outside the US."

Ultimately, Dratel argued Ulbricht's fall was "a setup, it's way too convenient, and you cannot rely on it beyond a reasonable doubt."

He said the only evidence the government had of someone who knew Ulbricht in real life was from his friend Richard Bates, who testified Ulbricht told him he had sold Silk Road in 2011.

"There's a distinction between the internet and IRL for a reason," Dratel said, using the shorthand for "in real life." "We are here in IRL, and we have to make judgements based on IRL."

In its own closing statements, the prosecution reiterated the "ream of evidence" it had already laid out in the case.

"There is no way to credibly explain away this evidence, and the defense's attempts to do so have been absurd," prosecutor Serrin Turner said. "The defendant is trying to dust off the old Dread Pirate Roberts play and try it out one last time on you, ladies and gentlemen."

He called the defense's alternative perpetrator theory "ludicrous."

"There were no little elves that put all of that evidence on the defendant's computer," he said. "It was the defendant who put all that evidence on the defendant's computer and in his trash can, in his nightstand, in the Silk Road server, his Gmail account and his Facebook account, from the bitcointalk forum and the shroomery [forum], everywhere else you have seen the digital fingerprints."

On Wednesday, the judge will read the jury instructions and the jury will begin deliberation. A verdict could come within hours or days. Motherboard will continue to cover the trial and the final decision, so check back here for updates.