Sam Bankman-Fried’s fraud trial got under way with jury selection on Tuesday, nearly a year after his now-bankrupt cryptocurrency exchange’s collapse shocked markets and tattered his reputation.
U.S. District Judge Lewis Kaplan told a group of 50 prospective jurors gathered in a courtroom on the top floor of a federal courthouse in lower Manhattan that he would ask them questions to try to seat a panel of 12 jurors and six alternates that could be fair to both prosecutors and the defence.
“The object is to select a jury of individuals who no matter what they may know or not know about these parties or about this case are willing and able to decide this case in a manner that’s fair and impartial to both sides based solely on the evidence,” Kaplan said.
Federal prosecutors say Bankman-Fried embezzled from FTX customers since its founding in 2019 until its November 2022 bankruptcy in order to prop up his hedge fund, Alameda Research, buy luxury properties and donate more than $100 million US to U.S. political candidates.
Bankman-Fried has pleaded not guilty to seven counts of fraud and conspiracy. He has acknowledged inadequate risk management but denied stealing funds.
Not yet clear whether Bankman-Fried will testify
At the outset of proceedings, Kaplan told the 31-year-old former billionaire in open court that it would ultimately be his decision whether to testify in his own defence and asked Bankman-Fried whether he understood.
“Yes,” Bankman-Fried replied. He was dressed in a suit and striped tie, with his once signature curly, unkempt hair cut into a neater trim.
He stood and smiled for the prospective jurors after Kaplan asked him to rise so they could see if they knew him personally.
During nearly two hours of questioning, Kaplan excused 22 jurors who said they could not serve on the case, many due to professional or personal obligations. He said jury selection would likely finish by the end of the day, paving the way for opening statements on Wednesday.
One prospective juror said the company they worked for, Insight Partners, lost money from its investments in FTX and Alameda but said they could decide the case “on the basis of the facts.” The juror was not dismissed, though further questioning is expected in the afternoon.
Insight Partners, a venture capital firm focused on technology, invested in FTX in 2019, according to private market data provider PitchBook. The company did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
3 ex-members of inner circle to testify
Earlier, prosecutor Nicolas Roos said the two sides never engaged in talks about a potential plea deal and no such offer was made to Bankman-Fried. Mark Cohen, a lawyer for Bankman-Fried, confirmed that was correct.
Lawyers for Bankman-Fried have signaled in court papers they plan to argue that FTX’s treatment of customer funds were proper and that others at FTX and Alameda bore the bulk of the blame for their failure.
The trial is expected to last up to six weeks. It will feature testimony from three former members of Bankman-Fried’s inner circle who have pleaded guilty to fraud charges themselves and agreed to cooperate with the Manhattan U.S. Attorney’s office.
Bankman-Fried’s lawyers have signaled they plan to challenge the credibility of those witnesses, who include former Alameda chief Caroline Ellison and former FTX executives Gary Wang and Nishad Singh, by arguing they are motivated to implicate their client to get a lower sentence, a common strategy in white collar fraud cases.
They have also laid the groundwork to argue that Bankman-Fried believed his exchange was allowed to invest customers’ deposits as long as they were ultimately able to take out their funds and that a series of business failures, not deliberate fraud, left the exchange without enough money to meet withdrawal requests.
Bankman-Fried has been detained since Aug. 11, after the judge found he had likely engaged in witness tampering, including by sharing Ellison’s personal writings with a reporter. Ellison and Bankman-Fried are former romantic partners.
He will be brought to court early on most days to allow him to prepare with his lawyers.
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