Former Chinese New York University (NYU) student, Cheng Le, filed an appeal for his sentencing back in May 2016. However, the Federal District Court of the Southern District of New York recently ruled and still upheld that all the three charges against him would remain in tact.
The three charges include one count in an attempt to purchase biological drugs as weapons, one count to identity theft and another count for illegal trading on darknet marketplaces with different pseudonyms. Cheng Le’s lawyer, Patrick Brackley, said he would continue to appeal, and said the prosecutors had no evidence that Le attempted to sell highly poisonous gases to his netizens.
Cheng Le’s defense team in court quoted his parents letter of love. This letter attempted to inform the judge that Le was a good person. That he was very clever, and inclined to excellent academic performance. Additionally, he was good at playing the piano, but his mental being was still immature. After studying in the United States, he could not live alone. Adapting to the new environment, he indulged into the world of fantasy, imagining that he was the king of the world.
According to court documents, Cheng Le came to the United States from Shanghai in 2011 and studied at New York University. His major was physics. He also used online networks to help his close friends buy handbags, Apple mobile phones, jewelry, etc. But in 2014, at that time at the age of 20, he logged in frequently to the dark web marketplaces in an attempt to buy highly toxic gas ricin.
In December 2014, Cheng Le chatted with Dark_Mart under the username WhenInDoubt on the Evolution marketplace, and the real identity of the latter was the FBI undercover agent. He asked “Dark_Mart” if he had ricin to sell. If the quality was good, he still had a large network of users who wanted to purchase the item.
Cheng Le also revealed that the poison was to be used to kill someone who was hospitalized, and the seller was asked to mix the tablets containing the toxin into a bottle of 60 ordinary tablets. Because it looks the same, the victim took one tablet a day until he died of toxic pills. He also claimed that such a murder method was very safe, even if it was investigated, it could not be found.
He also wrote on December 8, 2014,”I’m going to try out new ways in the future. However, it is death we are distributing here, and when it’s less risky the more useful it is for us”. Afterward, the law enforcement department knew of the poison sent to Cheng Le, and waited for him to receive the parcel and then arrest him on the spot.
Ultimately, Cheng Le later ordered the package, paying with bitcoins which were shipped to a post office close to his residence in Manhattan. The package was signed and shipped by an undercover FBI agent, James J. Cunnigham Jr. Investigators later discovered that Mr. Le had rented the post box by making the use of the name of a person whose identity he had stolen.
According to the official court order and complaint, the FBI undercover agent did not send the actual ricin to Mr. Le. However, he prepared a fake package that consisted of a mock tablet hidden in a pill bottle and also a clear vial which consists of a mock ricin powder. The clear vial was concealed in a flashlight.
Following his arrest, agents raided his home. At Mr. Le’s residence, the special agents found the counterfeit ricin, the ricin ingredient which contains castor bean seeds and Cheng Le’s laptop. Unfortunately for Mr. Le, his laptop was logged onto the darknet marketplace account during his raid.
Cheng Le was convicted and sentenced to 16 years in prison in March 2016 in the Superior Court in Manhattan, New York.
This recent appeal was directed toward the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, stating that the Biological Weapons Anti-Terrorism Act of 1989 should not apply to local crimes. The court is required to revoke its conviction. However that is not the case now.
“A sentence of about 15 to 17 years is the best punishment for Cheng Le’s conduct and this sentence can hopefully deter others who would want to tread on the twisted path into the dangerous part of the so-called Darknet,” Preet Bharara said. Bharara is the former United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York and very familiar with the state of affairs.