After months of anticipation, the trial of Sam Bankman-Fried began Tuesday with the drudgery of jury selection and a small dose of judicial advice.
Using screening questions submitted by Bankman-Fried’s legal team and Federal prosecutors, Judge Lewis Kaplan whittled down the pool of potential jurors to about 50 candidates, twelve of whom will serve on the trial with another half-dozen in reserve as alternates.
Final selections will occur Wednesday morning with the 78-year-old Kaplan, an experienced jurist who has presided over multiple high-profile trials, expecting the trial to begin shortly after with opening statements totaling more than an hour combined by the defense and prosecution. He expects the trial to last roughly six weeks.
Bankman-Fried, the 31-year-old founder and former CEO of disgraced crypto exchange FTX, faces seven felony charges, including wire fraud, conspiracy to commit money laundering and campaign finance violations. Prosecutors say that Bankman-Fried, also known as SBF, used customers’ funds for luxury real estate purchases and other expenses and to prop up FTX’s troubled trading arm, Alameda Research. If found guilty, the erstwhile, crypto wunderkind could spend decades in prison.
In June, prosecutors separated five other charges that they filed after Bankman-Fried’s arrest in and extradition from the Bahamas, where FTX was based before its downfall.
SBF’s biggest challenge
But Bankman-Fried has pleaded innocent to the charges, blaming FTX and Alameda’s implosion on his lack of business experience and senior managers, including his former girlfriend and Alameda’s former CEO Caroline Ellison. Ellison and three other executives from Bankman-Fried’s inner circle pleaded guilty to Federal charges earlier this year and will likely testify for the prosecution.
“SBF’s biggest challenge is going to be that his former colleagues are going to testify against him,” said Howard Fischer, a partner with Moses Singer and a former senior trial lawyer at the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), told CNN. “This kind of cooperation is a godsend for the prosecution,” said Fischer.
Bankman-Fried’s attorneys have hinted that they may raise a so-called “advice of counsel” defense that would show he was relying on his lawyers’ advice and unaware that his actions could be deemed illegal. In an order last weekend, Kaplan left open the possibility that Bankman-Fried could make that argument, although he said that Bankman-Fried could not blame FTX attorneys.
On Monday, prior to prospective jurors’ arrival, Kaplan told Bankman that he had “the right to testify” in his defense, even if his lawyers recommended otherwise.
Bankman-Fried spent much of the proceeding in front of a laptop and speaking with his legal team. Instead of the shorts and loose T-shirts he favored when FTX was considered a pillar of the crypto industry, or the prison jumpsuit he wore during his most recent court appearance, Bankman-Fried donned a dark suit and tie. His signature mop of curly hair was trimmed short, reportedly by another inmate at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, where he has been incarcerated since August after Kaplan revoked his bail for trying to contact and intimidate witnesses.
Quizzing potential jurors
In Monday’s voir dire, Kaplan quizzed prospective jurors about their knowledge and understanding of FTX and cryptocurrencies. One prospect said that they had lost money on a crypto investment, while another said their fiance had lost money. In another line of questioning, Kaplan asked if anyone had a bias against the cooperating witnesses.
A number of the prospective jurors said that they had read about Bankman-Fried, while others said they had watched last Sunday’s interview with Michael Lewis, the author of a recently published book on Bankman-Fried on the CBS news program “60 Minutes.” Lewis said in the interview that Bankman-Fried’s account of FTX’s collapse was “irritatingly difficult to disprove,” and that FTX “actually had a great, real business.” Meanwhile, another potential juror said they had learned about FTX from social media personality Joe Rogan’s podcast.
One potential juror said that she was getting married during the trial. Kaplan dismissed her with his congratulations.