Silk Road trial to turn on true identity of “Dread Pirate Roberts”

Ross Ulbricht, a young man from Texas, created a massive online market for drugs and crime known as the Silk Road, got filthy rich off digital currency and tried to murder anyone who crossed him. And he did so under the swashbuckling moniker “Dread Pirate Roberts” — unless, that is, Ulbricht was played as a patsy by the real Dread Pirate who not only did all those things, but also set up Ulbricht to take the fall.

This, in a nutshell, is what a jury will have to sort in a month long-trial that began Tuesday in Manhattan. I wasn’t in the courtroom, but a Wired report points to the defense strategy that will be employed by Ulbricht, who chose to plead not guilty following his dramatic arrest in a San Francisco library more than a year ago.

That strategy amounts to Ulbricht conceding that he did indeed found the Silk Road website as an anonymous market where anyone could buy anything. But Ulbricht is also claiming that he is not the Dread Pirate Roberts — the person (or people) associated with the most notorious aspects of Silk Road. As Wired reports:

[Ulbricht’s lawyer] Dratel went on to explain that the site was meant merely to be a kind of ‘economic experiment’ that Ulbricht only controlled for a brief time. The eventual adoptive owners of the Silk Road, Dratel claimed, would later trick Ulbricht into serving as the ‘fall guy’ when they sensed an impending law enforcement crackdown.

‘After a few months, he found it too stressful for him, and he handed it over to others,’ Dratel told the jury, describing the Silk Road’s early days. ‘At the end, he was lured back by those operators to … take the fall for the people running the website.’

While the argument sounds improbable to those familiar with the lawsuit, Ulbricht’s strategy may succeed if he can befuddle the jurors over the many technological dimensions of the case — online aliases, Tor networks, bitcoins, faulty CAPTCHAs. Any such confusion is also likely to get compounded by what legal scholar Sarah Jeong describes as the “strange ephemerality” of much of the evidence.

Such complexity and strangeness may make it hard for the jurors to conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that Ulbricht is the Dread Pirate Roberts. On the other hand, the prosecution is arriving with strong ammunition of its own, after persuading the judge not to exclude damning evidence that suggests Ulbricht tried to arrange a series of murders to cover his tracks.

We’ll provide more updates over the coming weeks about a trial that will amount to a rare public probe of some of the darkest corners of the internet.