A US federal judge has rejected convicted Silk Road kingpin Ross Ulbricht's request for a new trial, despite his attorneys' claims of misdeeds on the part of government agents and prosecutors.
"The evidence of Ulbricht's guilt was, in all respects, overwhelming," an unsympathetic District Judge Katherine Forrest wrote in a Monday ruling [PDF]. "It went unrebutted."
Joshua Dratel, Ulbricht's lead attorney, had argued that the reason his defense was so lacking was because the government had left him with no time to adequately prepare. What he really meant is that he was left scrambling to come up with a new strategy after the court rejected his original line of argument.
Dratel spent the early part of Ulbricht's trial trying to construct a bizarre defense in which he claimed Ulbricht, 30, was merely a fall guy for shadowy third parties. The true mastermind behind Silk Road, he alleged, was Mt Gox founder Mark Karpeles (a charge that Karpeles has categorically denied).
Prosecutors objected to this tactic midway into Dratel's presentation, arguing that it relied on testimony that amounted to "hearsay" and "hunches," rather than witnesses' empirical knowledge. Judge Forrest agreed and ruled all such testimony inadmissible – a move that Dratel later complained had "eviscerated" his defense.
'Tactical choices' backfired
When Dratel tried to use the nullification of his evidence on legal grounds as an argument in favor of a new trial for Ulbricht, Judge Forrest wasn't buying it.
"There is a necessary disconnect between this defense theory ... of what really happened, and the theory on this motion [for a new trial]: that defendant has not had the time or information to develop any defense at all," she wrote in her Monday ruling.
Dratel also argued that actions by prosecutors and the court had not given him enough time to gather and present evidence and testimony, further prejudicing his defense. But Judge Forrest found that while prosecutors had complied with all their legal obligations, Dratel himself had not.
"Defense counsel had failed to timely comply with the appropriate disclosure requirements, and that failure was a tactical choice – not an oversight," the judge wrote. She added that Dratel "cannot undo this tactical choice now."
Moreover, she said, there is nothing to suggest that the jury would have arrived at a different verdict had Dratel been able to present the evidence that he now claims he didn't have time to gather.