Silk Road founder tells mom, ‘A life sentence is really a death sentence’

Mother of Ross Ulbricht says his prosecution sets bad precedents

Every March, tens of thousands of people from around the globe flock to Austin, Texas, to learn and connect over panels, parties and tacos at South by Southwest's interactive, film and music conferences. America Tonight's SXDiaries Q&A series highlights interesting and inspiring figures at SXSW.

In October 2013, FBI agents arrested Ross Ulbricht in a San Francisco public library, alleging that he was Dread Pirate Roberts — the kingpin of Silk Road, an online marketplace described as eBay for the drug trade.

Last month, a Manhattan jury convicted Ulbricht on seven drug and conspiracy counts. He faces 20 years to life in prison. Federal prosecutors allege that Ulbricht was so protective of Silk Road that he was willing to pay for people to be killed to keep the site operating. He's awaiting a separate trial in Baltimore on a murder-for-hire plot.

Since his arrest, his mother, Lyn, has been tirelessly campaigning to free her son — pointing out flaws in his prosecution and fighting for other families with loved ones facing charges related to digital crimes. Her efforts are being featured in the upcoming documentary “Deep Web.”

In an interview with America Tonight, Lyn Ulbricht, along with “Deep Web” director Alex Winter, discussed the possible severity of Ross Ulbricht's sentencing and the impact his case could have on the justice system. Questions and answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.

It’s been an intense year for you. How have your feelings toward your son evolved as his case has unfolded?

Lyn Ulbricht: The only thing I really saw established, that I have full belief in, is that he did create the site as an economic, free-market experiment, which makes sense to me, since it’s a big interest to Ross. He’s very creative. I know he was convicted, but that doesn’t mean it’s the truth. It was very obvious at the trial and as part of post-trial motion that there was a great deal of evidence in the government’s own material that was suppressed. The defense is actually calling for a retrial based on that and other things. 

Lyn Ulbricht, second from right, with her son, Ross Ulbricht, right, the founder of Silk Road.
courtesy: "Deep Web"

I definitely don’t believe the murder-for-hire allegation. They didn’t even charge him with it, but they acted like it was real in the trial. They spent a whole day on it. I don’t believe it for a second and neither do people who know Ross. What do I think about what he did? He’s a very freedom-oriented and libertarian guy, and I respect that. There might have been some youthful zeal in there. I think young people sometimes don’t know the consequences; they’re very idealistic. But I do know he doesn’t have a mean, violent or cruel bone in his body. I think he’s being accused of things he didn’t do.

Alex, what stood out to you about Ross’ story that made you want to pursue this project?

Alex Winter: Coming off the Napster movie, I spent a lot of time in that world, probably 13 or 14 years. I had met quite a lot of people in encryption back in the late '80s and early '90s — and seeing the evolution of using the Internet as a form of global community, social activism and not criminality. If you have any environment, then people, both good and bad, will use that environment. But that didn’t interest me. What interested me was the social community of it. I was interested in Bitcoin from a community aspect and the dark net from a community aspect.

When Ross was arrested and the news hit, I was immediately struck by the similarities in the way they were representing his story and the way they were representing [founder] Sean Fanning’s story during the Napster era — only the stakes were way higher. I think Sean got eviscerated in the process and I don’t take that lightly. I think the system came down on him, but here you’re talking about a guy facing the rest of his life in prison. The narrative being put forward was so superficial at best and darkly inaccurate at worst that it needed some light shone on it. It wasn’t motivated by a feeling that I had the right story and that someone else had the wrong story. I just felt like people don’t tell the story. The thing about this world is the more you know, the more you realize you don’t know and the more you realize what’s not being said.

What does Ross' case say about the sentencing of cases involving so-called victimless crimes? 

Lyn Ulbricht: I’ve been told by more than one lawyer that prosecutors are pushing for the maximum [sentencing] because it looks good on their resume. We’re talking about the equivalent of life. I was talking to him last week and he said, “You know, mom, a life sentence is really a death sentence. Either way, you die in prison — one just takes longer.” No one came forth as a victim in that trial to say, “Ross Ulbricht harmed me in any way.” And I find the mandatory minimums totally unconstitutional and the amount of time [they're] talking about is draconian and I would say barbaric, and certainly way beyond what’s sufficient for Ross not to ever make Silk Road again. He could walk out of prison tomorrow and they would not have a problem with Ross again. Even 20 years, which is the minimum, would be making an example of him. He’s 30, and he’d be 50 by the time he got out. You could say those are the best or most productive years of his life.

Alex Winter: I want to add that it’s important to underscore that he wasn’t charged for violent crimes, period. They’ve used these murder-for-hire allegations as public relations to soften the blow of the mandatory minimum sentence. The reality is these sentences have nothing to do with violent offenses. They have everything to do with the level of punitive sentencing around the drug war, which is commonly known as being draconian for nonviolent offenders.

‘I was talking to him last week, and he said, ‘You know, mom, a life sentence is really a death sentence. Either way, you die in prison – one just takes longer.’’

Lyn Ulbricht

mother of Ross Ulbricht

On the other hand, there is the huge institutional fear of the Internet and the extraordinary punitive sentencing for digital crimes or what’s being perceived as digital crimes. Ross is caught up in the same gears of a machine that [Julian] Assange is caught up in, that Barrett Brown is caught up in, that Jeremy Hammond is caught up in, that Aaron Swartz was caught up in. You’re dealing with so much fear in the power of the Internet and there’s so much imbalance in which those cases are tried and convicted when someone could be facing 100 years for posting a hyperlink. That’s just insanity.

Last year, I had a chance to talk with Aaron Swartz’s brother, Noah, and he was echoing some of those same sentiments. A year later, it’s pretty jarring how we’re still having these conversations — and that people’s lives are at stake.

Alex Winter: When I met Napster co-founders Sean Fanning and Sean Parker in 2001, Parker was years away from having any money. What really struck me about these people is that they were some of the most inspiring and intelligent and idealistic people I had ever met. It just blew your mind. It is really tragic that these people, whether they crossed certain lines or not — Ross and Aaron and Jeremy and Sean — hey just get their lives totally destroyed. It’s just so unbelievably sad. With Ross, it’s a story that’s very challenging for people to look at with an open mind.

Lyn Ulbricht is hoping her advocacy about her son’s prosecution will help “shine a light on what is really a national disgrace.”
courtesy: "Deep Web"

Lyn Ulbricht: I wasn’t aware of all this before it all happened, but we’ve gotten to know the people in the prisons. We’re together visiting our loved ones. It’s a heartbreaking situation and I feel like, beyond Ross, I have an opportunity. You want to talk to me because of Ross and I happen to have the education and background to articulate what many of those people, who have loved ones in prison, don’t have the chance to do. I almost consider it an obligation and a duty to use this for good, as tragic as it is, and I know Ross wants me to shine a light on what is really a national disgrace.

There’s a good chance your son’s case could prove to be crucial in shaping interpretations of U.S. law. Internet freedoms are at potentially at stake. How have you been able to process the magnitude of it all and what does it mean moving forward?

Lyn Ulbricht: There’s a precedent being set at this trial, and there are a number of Fourth Amendment issues being addressed here: the issue of transfer intent, holding website hosts responsible for crimes on their site, the fact the evidence was mostly digital. They had one real-life witness that talked about Ross. This kind of evidence lacks integrity and it lowers the bar in the future for other cases. The server being hacked potentially, we don’t know. There’s huge skepticism about that, and also about the kinds of warrants they used on Ross’ laptop, which were not specific. If they had searched his house and desk drawers with the same kind of warrants, it would have been unconstitutional. Because it was his laptop, it’s questioned whether it applies and whether these protections will go forward in the digital age.

Check out the SXDiaries Q&A with Twitter co-founder Biz Stone and stay tuned for more interviews, including ones with young inventor Shiva Nathan and astronaut Gene Cernan.

More from America Tonight

Related News

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter