Sam Bankman-Fried trial begins; jury should be selected by Wednesday

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Sam Bankman-Fried was sporting a fresh look at the first day of his trial Tuesday, with a spiffy new haircut reportedly given by a fellow inmate at the jail in Brooklyn where he’s been incarcerated since August over alleged witness tampering. The former CEO of bankrupt crypto exchange FTX was wearing a fresh-pressed suit, and unlike the last time he was in court, he entered the 26th floor courtroom without shackles.

Journalists stood alongside dozens of New York residents clutching jury summonses as they queued in two different security lines. Even after waiting in line for two hours, most reporters were escorted into an overflow room with a series of monitors showing two views of the courtroom via live video feed. The room was cold with fluorescent lighting, and the acoustics left a lot to be desired — loud, high-pitched feedback periodically pierced the room.

Bankman-Fried, who faces seven charges including fraud and money laundering, sat nestled between two of the attorneys from his legal team on the first day of his criminal trial — consulting with counsel and referring to a laptop in front of him as proceedings got underway. The disgraced former titan of the crypto sector has pleaded not guilty to all charges against him.

U.S. District Judge Lewis Kaplan presides over the fraud trial of Sam Bankman-Fried over the collapse of FTX, the bankrupt cryptocurrency exchange, at Federal Court in New York City, U.S., October 3, 2023 in this courtroom sketch. 

Jane Rosenberg | Reuters

The day started slowly, as the jury selection process didn’t get going until nearly 11 A.M. with a break for lunch before 12:30 P.M. But the delay didn’t appear to phase 78-year-old Judge Lewis Kaplan — a veteran of the Southern District of New York who has presided over some of the biggest cases to roll through the courthouse at 500 Pearl Street in downtown Manhattan.

In his typical candor, Kaplan said he didn’t “speak computer” after his desktop beeped in court. He then said his clerk was a computer whisperer, and would, therefore, be able to make his computer whisper.

The no-nonsense U.S. District judge kicked off the first day of trial by addressing Bankman-Fried directly before jurors entered the courtroom, telling him that he had the right to testify and that the decision to do so was his alone — not his attorneys’. Kaplan told Bankman-Fried to rise in court in order to indicate his desire to take the stand in his own defense.

The judge said he would take Bankman-Fried standing up from the defense table as a sign to usher the jury out of the courtroom and address him directly. It is not yet clear whether the former crypto titan will testify in his defense.

The list of cooperating witnesses anticipated to take the stand include Bankman-Fried’s ex-girlfriend, Caroline Ellison, and his ex-best friend from high school math camp and former MIT roommate, Gary Wang.

Ellison, who is the former chief executive of Alameda Research, and FTX co-founder Wang both pleaded guilty in December to multiple charges and have been cooperating with the U.S. attorney’s office in Manhattan for months.

The first step in the six-week trial is assembling a 12-person jury, plus a few alternates. District Judge Kaplan instructed the court that he would be asking all of the questions, though the list had been drafted with feedback from lawyers on both sides. He later said that he expects the jury to be seated by Wednesday at the earliest.

One prospective juror worked for Insight Partners, which had an investment in Alameda, the hedge fund that allegedly used FTX customers’ deposits without their knowledge or permission, contributing to the eventual downfall of both companies when the arrangement was exposed and customers raced to withdraw funds. Another tried to get out of jury duty by pleading a six-month trip to Maui, to which the judge responded, “You’re a courageous soul.”

Most of the jurors said they had heard of Bankman-Fried, citing periodicals as their main source, although one cited the Joe Rogan podcast.

— Dawn Giel contributed reporting.

U.S. District Judge Lewis Kaplan presides over the fraud trial of Sam Bankman-Fried over the collapse of FTX, the bankrupt cryptocurrency exchange, at Federal Court in New York City, U.S., October 3, 2023 in this courtroom sketch. 

Jane Rosenberg | Reuters



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