U.S. appeals court weighs appeal by Silk Road website creator

October 6, 2016 3:17 PM EDT

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By Nate Raymond

NEW YORK (Reuters) - A U.S. appeals court on Thursday appeared skeptical of a bid by Ross Ulbricht, the creator of the underground website Silk Road, to overturn his conviction for running an online marketplace for drugs but left open the possibility of cutting his life sentence.

Joshua Dratel, Ulbricht's lawyer, told the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York that his client was prevented from introducing evidence of corrupt acts by two government agents in the probe, depriving him of a fair trial.

Dratel said jurors should have been allowed to hear evidence related to two government agents, Carl Force and Shaun Bridges, who later pleaded guilty and received prison terms for stealing bitcoins during the investigation.

"For us this is a critical issue and what we wanted was a chance to put it before a jury," Dratel said.

But some members of the three-judge panel asked whether it mattered given the trove of evidence prosecutors introduced showing Ulbricht ran Silk Road, including from his own laptop.

"So what, how does it show your client didn't do these crimes?" U.S. Circuit Judge Christopher Droney asked.

Nonetheless, some judges appeared sympathetic to the 32-year-old's appeal of his life sentence, which U.S. District Judge Katherine Forrest imposed after hearing from the parents of two people who died from overdoses on drugs sold on Silk Road.

U.S. Circuit Judge Gerald Lynch said that may have resulted in an "enormous emotional overload" at sentencing.

"Doesn't that put an extraordinary thumb on the scale that shouldn't be there?" he asked Assistant U.S. Attorney Eun Young Choi.

Silk Road operated for more than two years, generating $213 million in sales while allowing users to buy drugs and other illicit goods, prosecutors said.

The website, which relied on the Tor network, was seized by authorities in 2013 as they arrested Ulbricht, who they said operated it under the alias Dread Pirate Roberts.

At trial, Dratel conceded Ulbricht created Silk Road but contended he handed the website off to others and was lured back later to become the "fall guy" for its true operators.

A federal jury in February 2015 found Ulbricht, who grew up in Austin, Texas, guilty of charges that included conspiracy to commit drug trafficking and money laundering.

(Reporting by Nate Raymond in New York; Editing by Steve Orlofsky)



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