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Silk Road prosecutors want to ban Ross Ulbricht’s libertarian politics in court

Would the jury end up liking what they hear?


Patrick Howell O'Neill


Posted on Dec 16, 2014   Updated on May 29, 2021, 11:26 pm CDT

Prosecutors in the case against alleged Silk Road mastermind Ross Ulbricht want the court to prohibit Ulbricht from saying almost anything political at all, according to a motion filed last week by the government.

They’re worried that the jury might end up sympathizing with Ulbricht’s politics.

U.S. attorney Preet Bharara believes that Ulbricht’s defense team wants to bring up his “views concerning the propriety of U.S. or international drug laws or the propriety of government regulation of individual conduct or commerce on the Internet” in order to convince the jury to excuse his alleged criminal behavior.

Ulbricht’s political views are “plainly not relevant,” prosecutors say, adding that they would “serve only to invite jury nullification and should therefore be excluded” and they “cannot form the basis for a legal defense.”

Actually, they can.

Jury nullification occurs when jurors reach a verdict that goes against the evidence because they disagree with the law.

American jurors have the right, under the Bill of Rights, to vote “not guilty” on a crime even if they believe the defendant actually committed the crimes they are accused of. For instance, if a juror on a marijuana possession trial so chooses, she can vote “not guilty” if they think the defendant did nothing wrong, even if it’s clear a defendant broke the law.

“If you exercise [this power as a juror],” former federal prosecutor Paul Butler wrote in the New York Times, “you become part of a proud tradition of American jurors who helped make our laws fairer.”

Ulbricht is accused of operating Silk Road under the name Dread Pirate Roberts from 2011 to 2013. In those two years, Roberts became a vocal libertarian critic of the American government’s decades-long war on drugs. Roberts, who wrote multiple long essays on freedom to his users, made his enormous drug bazaar an overtly political operation from the very beginning.

“Silk Road is about something much bigger than thumbing your nose at the man and getting your drugs anyway,” Roberts wrote in 2012. “It’s about taking back our liberty and our dignity and demanding justice.”

Prosecutors cited precedent stating that “political defenses” should not be allowed because it is based on the “erroneous assumption that good motive is inconsistent with criminal intent.” 

Ulbricht was arrested last year on charges of drug trafficking, computer hacking, money laundering, engaging in a criminal enterprise, and multiple counts of murder for hire. Later on, charges of trafficking fraudulent identification, narcotics trafficking, and distribution of narcotics were added to the list.

Lyn Ulbricht, Ross’s mother and his outspoken advocate over the last year, denounced the prosecutors’ approach.

“The government obviously doesn’t want this trial to become about Internet freedom, the drug war, or liberty,” she told the Daily Dot. “But these crucial issues are on trial along with Ross. 

“This trial is poised to be the most important of 2015 in the fight for freedom. Obviously the government thinks so. They are doing their best to smear Ross and obstruct his defense.”

Clarification: We have removed a quote from Lyn Ulbricht about the prosecution’s strategy that was not in context.

Photo via daquellamanera/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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*First Published: Dec 16, 2014, 7:01 pm CST