The first audience members started arriving around 10 p.m. on Sunday night, even though the event wouldn’t begin for another eleven and a half hours.
The people in line weren’t waiting for Taylor Swift tickets, or some new Apple device, but for a coveted seat in U.S. District Judge Lewis Kaplan’s courtroom in lower Manhattan, where alleged fraudster Sam Bankman-Fried was on trial. Only 21 seats were reserved for the press and the public, and it was first come, first served. If you wanted to be in that courtroom—to be able to see the reactions of SBF’s parents, say, or Kaplan’s expression as he chastised the defendant (which he did regularly)—there was no such thing as getting to the courthouse too early. By midnight, all the seats had been accounted for.
The rest of us had to make do with the overflow courtroom. Or rather, two overflow rooms, since one wasn’t enough to accommodate the 80 or so reporters covering the trial.
Friday, my first day at the trial, had been devoted to gentle questioning from SBF’s lawyer, Mark Cohen, as he tried to present his client as someone who had been done in by his subordinates—three of whom had offered devastating testimony against Bankman-Fried earlier in the trial. By the time Friday’s session ended, Cohen’s direct examination was nearly completed, after which, we all knew, would come the main event: prosecutor Danielle Sassoon’s cross-examination on Monday, which was bound to be brutal for SBF, and highly entertaining for the rest of us.
In the overflow rooms, the televisions offered a split screen, with one camera focused on SBF in the witness box and another pointed down at the three long tables where the lawyers were seated. The only time we caught a glimpse of the jurors was when they walked past Bankman-Fried on their way in and out of the courtroom. It was painful to see how studiously they averted their gaze from him, while he did just the opposite, staring balefully at each of them as they walked by. I couldn’t help wondering if any of them found him persuasive, or even sympathetic.
I had my doubts.
It’s no secret that defense lawyers hate putting their clients on the stand, because it exposes them to cross-examination. But what choice did Cohen have? When FTX, the crypto exchange SBF founded in 2019, collapsed in November 2022, resulting in big losses for many of its customers, the Justice Department filed eight criminal charges against him. These included wire fraud, money laundering, and conspiracy to commit fraud. The central allegation, though, was that Bankman-Fried embezzled around $8 billion that belonged to FTX customers, and used it to cover up losses at his hedge fund Alameda Research. He also used the money to make risky investments, buy a couple of private jets, pay stars like Tom Brady to promote FTX, and purchase naming rights for the stadium that hosts the Miami Heat, which was briefly known as FTX Arena. If convicted of all eight charges, SBF faces up to 110 years in prison.
Put in simpler terms: imagine if your broker bought herself a new house with money you’d given her to invest. On a far grander scale, that’s what SBF is accused of doing.
Did SBF move the money knowingly? Or was it some kind of innocent mistake—maybe something his underlings did when he wasn’t paying attention? If SBF hoped to avoid being convicted, he would have to convince the jury of the latter. On the stand, his primary tactic was to portray himself as a hapless victim of Alameda’s CEO, Caroline Ellison, with whom he had a weird relationship. (They slept together occasionally, and while Ellison desperately wanted more from Bankman-Fried than sex, he seemed incapable of giving her that.)
There are two big problems with SBF’s defense. The first is that Ellison had made a persuasive case during her time on the stand that he was well aware of the problems, had directed most of what she did, and had lied about Alameda’s increasingly difficult financial situation. “He directed me to commit these crimes,” she testified.
The second problem was that, to put it bluntly, SBF is a terrible witness. He looked visibly nervous most of the time he was in the witness box. He often had his hands tucked between his legs. He rarely blinked. His voice rose as he spoke, making his answers sound like questions. He used a curt yep when a yes was called for, and nope instead of no. No one found his occasional efforts at humor funny. Whenever he tried to expand upon an answer, Judge Kaplan cut him down.
And this was during the easy part of his testimony, when his lawyer was tossing him one softball question after another. SBF seemed incapable of saying anything that might engender empathy from a juror.
“I made some small mistakes and some very big mistakes,” he said early in his Friday testimony.
His biggest mistake? That he never employed a chief risk manager.
“We sure should have, but no we did not,” he admitted to the court.
SBF’s other problem: he is still the same creature of Wall Street he’d been when he was riding high. He talks about billions of dollars as if it were pocket change. He constantly lapses into financial-ese: “correlated with the market.” “Margin exchange.” “Counterparty complications.” Cohen usually asked him to define the terms, but that only made things worse: his efforts to explain the lingo in easy-to-understand language came across as condescending to the middle-class jurors who will decide his fate.
And then it was Danielle Sassoon’s turn.
The assistant U.S. attorney leading the prosecution, Sassoon relies on a well-honed staccato to hit defendants with a relentless barrage of questions. That’s what SBF was now facing, and what we were all here to see:
“Do you recall saying that FTX was safe?”
“Didn’t you say in interviews that FTX had protection for customers?”
“Did you own 90 percent of Alameda?”
“Did you say in private, ‘Fuck regulators?’ ”
“Did you call some customers ‘dumb motherfuckers?’ ”
“Did you fly to the Super Bowl in a private plane?”
“Most FTX customers did not have a line of credit, correct?”
“Do you deny that Alameda had a $65 billion line of credit?”
And on, and on, and on.
Under the circumstances, SBF’s wisest course would have been to just say yes—or yep—to her questions. And sometimes he did that. But just as often, he chose to dance around the question, to quibble about the phrasing, or say that he couldn’t remember the details. And every time he did that—every single time—Sassoon projected an email or video or a spreadsheet onto the screen, showing that he had done exactly what she was accusing him of doing. Which then gave the jurors another look at the evidence while reminding them that SBF was being something less than forthright. You’d think this MIT graduate would wise up, but he never did.
(He even equivocated on whether he had taken a private plane to the Super Bowl—to which Sassoon responded by presenting a photograph of SBF fast asleep in the embrace of a comfy chair on a private jet. In the overflow room, we burst into laughter.)
When court was over, I lingered to watch SBF consult with his lawyers while a U.S. Marshal stood by, waiting to take him back to jail. I was the last one to leave, escorted by a marshal of my own.
That’s when my marshal turned to me.
“He sure isn’t doing himself much good,” he said.
I was stunned. I’ve covered my share of trials over the years, but I’ve never, ever heard a marshal talk about a witness.
“It’s hard to understand what he’s doing up there,” the marshal concluded.
I had to agree.
The trial is likely to go on another few days before the jury begins deliberating. But I’d seen enough. It was clear to almost everyone watching his testimony that Sam Bankman-Fried is a dead man walking.
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