Jury Selection To Begin For Accused Silk Road Mastermind

Jan 13, 2015
Originally published on January 13, 2015 3:52 pm
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

The Silk Road existed on a dark, anonymous corner of the Internet for years. And today jury selection begins in the trial of Ross Ulbricht. He is the man accused of being the mastermind behind the now-defunct website the Silk Road. It allowed hundreds of thousands of drug buyers and thousands of drug dealers to find each other online anonymously. Ulbricht was arrested in San Francisco in late 2013. And we're joined now by Steve Henn from NPR's Planet Money team who's covered the case. Good morning.

STEVE HENN, BYLINE: Good morning.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

So people of course have been buying and selling illicit drugs for thousands of years. So what about the Silk Road? It was a website, but what made it special?

HENN: Well, really what made it special was that it was designed to preserve anonymity. It used bitcoin and something called the Tor network to mask everyone's identities. And the thing that actually made it work was a really old idea. Its founder, allegedly Ross Ulbricht, who online went by the name the Dread Pirate Roberts, set up escrow accounts. So if you brought drugs online, you didn't have to mail your money directly to an anonymous drug dealer. You'd send it to a trusted third party, this Dread Pirate. He'd hold the money for you until you got your drugs, and only then would it be released. It was that trust in this character online that made the Silk Road work.

MONTAGNE: Now, Ross Ulbricht denies that he's behind the persona the Dread Pirate Roberts, but what is the government's case?

HENN: Well, in court filings, the Justice Department's laid out pretty extensive evidence linking Ross Ulbricht to the online persona. A lot of it's digital evidence. They also allege that the FBI actually caught Ulbricht sitting in a public library in San Francisco with his laptop open to the administrative pages of the site. And the prosecution plans to submit into evidence Ulbricht's journal, which allegedly details how and when he came up with the idea for an anonymous online drug market.

MONTAGNE: And to all of that, what is the defense saying?

HENN: Judging from pretrial motions, the defense strategy will be to try and challenge every piece of evidence it can before it's introduced. They're going to try to create some kind of doubt that Ulbricht really was the man behind this online persona of the Dread Pirate. To do that, they're challenging how the FBI tracked down the Silk Road servers. Those servers created a cache of evidence. And they're arguing basically that the FBI searched them illegally. If they can get that evidence thrown out, then the case becomes much weaker. If they don't, I think it's going to be a tough, tough haul.

MONTAGNE: Well, there is some speculation that this wouldn't go to trial, but there might be, say, a plea deal.

HENN: There has been a lot of speculation that there could be a plea, and there might still be. But, you know, Ulbricht's family and his legal team have consistently maintained his innocence. And quite a number of supporters have rallied around this case, largely for political reasons. Ulbricht has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for his defense online. You know, and this character, the Dread Pirate Roberts, was really this eloquent advocate of a libertarian economy that was completely free of government intervention. You know, on the Silk Road site, he'd argue that the entire economy, not just drug markets, should be free of government oversight. And for some, apparently that message resonated.

MONTAGNE: Although this being the web, almost the moment the Silk Road was taken down, Silk Road 2.0 appeared.

HENN: That's right, Renee. There almost immediately was another site called the Silk Road that popped up, but it, too, has been taken down by the Feds. Although, I have to say it is still possible to find anonymous sites online that will sell illegal drugs.

MONTAGNE: Steve Henn is part of NPR's Planet Money team. Thanks.

HENN: Oh, my pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.