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Oct 6, 6:07 PM EDT

Judges question if life term too harsh for Silk Road founder

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NEW YORK (AP) -- A Manhattan federal appeals panel Thursday questioned whether the life prison term given to the San Francisco founder of the drug-selling website Silk Road was too harsh.

Hearing oral arguments on the conviction and sentencing of Ross Ulbricht, at least two members of a three-judge panel of the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals seemed concerned that the sentencing judge in May 2015 may have relied too much on the government's characterization of at least six deaths from drugs bought on the underground website.

Judge Jon O. Newman said he found it unusual for a man in his early 30s with no criminal record who was not dealing drugs himself to receive a life sentence.

"Isn't that quite a leap to have that kind of sentence imposed?" he asked Assistant U.S. Attorney Eun Young Choi.

"Your honor, I don't think that it is," she answered, explaining the enormous reach of the unprecedented one-stop online shopping mall where the supply of drugs limitless, enabling nearly 4,000 drug dealers to expand their markets from the sidewalk to cyberspace.

The government says drugs were sold for nearly three years to more than 100,000 buyers in markets stretching from Argentina to Australia, from the United States to Ukraine. The website lasted from 2011 until 2013 when Ulbricht was arrested.

Prosecutors said Ulbricht collected $18 million in bitcoins through commissions on a website containing thousands of listings under categories like "Cannabis," ''Psychedelics" and "Stimulants." They said he brokered more than 1 million drug deals worth more than $183 million while he operated on the site under the alias Dread Pirate Roberts - a reference to the swashbuckling character in "The Princess Bride."

Judge Gerald E. Lynch questioned whether the sentencing of Ulbricht got "kind of hijacked by the overdose deaths."

"Isn't that something that's really a potential in every drug case?" he asked. "Doesn't that put an extraordinary thumb on the scales that shouldn't be there?"

He said the testimony of victims' relatives can create "an enormous emotion overload."

Choi said it was up to the discretion of the sentencing judge as to how much emphasis anything such as the drug deaths receives in deciding a sentence and it was improper for the appeals court to substitute its own judgment.

She also cited the vast size of the drug sales that occurred.

"This is unprecedented, the amount of drugs, the amount of harm that was imposed by Silk Road and by the fact he did so deliberately and with a personal profit," Choi said.

Attorney Joshua Dratel, representing Ulbricht, said flatly: "A life sentence is unreasonable."

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