top of page

Former Ethereum developer sentenced to 63 months in prison for his trip to North Korea

For assisting North Koreans in using cryptocurrencies to evade sanctions, former Ethereum developer Virgil Griffith will serve 63 months in prison and pay a $100,000 fine.

Griffith pleaded guilty to one count of conspiring to violate UN sanctions against North Korea in September. Griffith was arrested in November 2019 after giving a talk in Pyongyang at a cryptocurrency conference in April.

Despite the fact that the crime carried a maximum sentence of 20 years, Griffith's plea agreement with federal prosecutors reduced the sentence to a range of 63 to 78 months – roughly five to 6.5 years. Griffith has already spent nearly two years in custody, though 14 of those months were spent on bail. The remaining ten months will be counted as time served by the court.

U.S. District Judge Kevin Castel of the Southern District of New York handed down a sentence on Tuesday that was on the lower end of the prosecution's suggested sentencing guidelines and in line with the Department of Probation's recommendation.

Griffith and his attorneys had the opportunity to address the court with any final objections or remarks before he was sentenced.

In the courtroom, Griffith, dressed in a khaki prison uniform, exchanged glances with his elderly parents and several friends.

Griffith's lead attorney, Brian Klein, urged Judge Castel to take into account factors that he believed were not accounted for in the prosecution's sentencing guidelines, such as the harsh conditions at the Metropolitan Detention Center (MDC) in Brooklyn, where Griffith has been held.

Griffith was subjected to "several really trying and inhumane conditions" at MDC, including extended solitary confinement due to COVID-19 outbreaks, no family visits, limited access to blankets and warm clothing, and even being forced to use his sink as a toilet, according to Klein.

Because gangs in MDC control the kitchens and commissary, Griffith has been limited to two or fewer meals per day, usually peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, according to Klein.

Klein requested that the judge consider counting Griffith's 10 months in prison as double time, and that his client be transferred to Allenwood Low, a low-security federal prison in Pennsylvania, where he could be closer to extended family.

Klein also told Judge Castel about a recent psychological evaluation of Griffith that was conducted in prison and revealed that he was suffering from two personality disorders: narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) and obsessive compulsive personality disorder (OCPD) (OCPD). The disorders, according to his defense, explained his "obsession" with North Korea and his disregard for warnings from his family, friends, employer, and the government not to travel there.

Griffith, according to Klein, has been "dedicated to therapy" and was found to be "treatable" and "not likely to reoffend" by the psychiatrist.

When Griffith was given the chance to speak, he told the court that he had spent his time in prison reflecting on how he "genuinely, arrogantly, and erroneously thought I knew better" than his loved ones who had warned him against going to North Korea.

Griffith stated, "I have learned my lesson. I am still profoundly embarrassed that I am here, and of what I have done. "

Griffith's claims that he had learned his lesson and his promises not to reoffend did not appear to sway the court.

"There is an argument that Virgil Griffith is a kind and thoughtful man," Castel said in court, describing a version of events in which Griffith traveled to North Korea to share educational materials about blockchain technology "at great personal sacrifice to himself" and then returned to persecution.

"But those are not the facts," Castel clarified. "That is not what happened."

"What you see here is an intentionality…and a desire to educate people on how to evade sanctions," Castel explained.

Griffith admitted to sharing information with North Korea for the express purpose of assisting the repressive Kim regime in evading sanctions, according to a series of text messages and emails read by Judge Castel.

Perhaps the most damning image the judge saw was of Griffith giving a presentation at the conference, dressed in a traditional North Korean suit and standing in front of a blackboard that read "No sanctions!" with a smiley face.

"The fact of the matter is Virgil Griffith…hoped to come home to Singapore or elsewhere as a crypto hero," Castel said. "To be admired and praised for standing up to government sanctions, for his fearlessness and nobility."

Griffith's history of cooperation with the government both before and after his trip to Pyongyang – cited by the defense as proof of his good nature – was slammed by Castel as narcissism.

"This guy is willing to play both sides of the street," Castel said, "as long as he is the center of attention."

Both the judge and the prosecution used the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, as well as the US government's use of sanctions against Russia, to justify the need for a harsh sentence to deter Griffith and "similarly situated others" from breaking US sanctions laws in the future.



bottom of page