Sam Bankman-Fried's Trim May Undercut His Defense

If your defense is “I didn’t know what was happening,” don’t dress like a competent person.

AccessTimeIconOct 4, 2023 at 5:14 p.m. UTC
Updated Oct 5, 2023 at 2:19 p.m. UTC
AccessTimeIconOct 4, 2023 at 5:14 p.m. UTCUpdated Oct 5, 2023 at 2:19 p.m. UTC
AccessTimeIconOct 4, 2023 at 5:14 p.m. UTCUpdated Oct 5, 2023 at 2:19 p.m. UTC

When a wayward kid does wrong and gets found out, typically he doesn’t want to be known as the guy who just joy-rode his neighbor’s Ford Crown Victoria. He wants to make a good impression on everyone, so they talk to him again. He shaves, gets a haircut and puts on the shiny suit he hasn’t worn since his granddad’s funeral. When he appears in court, he acts contrite.

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And, so it is with Sam Bankman-Fried. Turning up this week for his long-awaited trial on multiple fraud charges related to the collapse of FTX, the 31-year-old fallen crypto king gave the impression of someone who’d sobered up. He wore a gray suit, white shirt and striped tie. He tied his shoelaces, and his hair was short, like a “boot” on the first day of Army training camp.

SBF was unrecognizable from the person who lit up crypto circles, and Washington D.C. salons, in the high-ole-days of 2020-21. No more tousled just-out-of-bed hair. No more power-play Bermuda shorts signaling f**k-you wealth.

Apparently a fellow inmate at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn had done the honors with the haircut. But here’s the key question: Does it do SBF any good at this stage?

He would have been better playing his unusual self than playing someone nobody recognizes.

SBF could land in prison for decades. The record at FTX is arguable but, to most legal observers, pretty damning. There’s a high likelihood that SBF will be convicted, because a large percentage of such cases result in convictions. SBF isn’t so much arguing the merits of what happened as his own culpability in what happened.

Impressions matter and by turning up as a contrite teen who hotwired a car, SBF perhaps does himself more harm than good. His defense strategy rests on the idea that he was out of his depth, a callow youngster over-influenced by svengalis around him. His lawyers are employing (or trying to employ) a blame-the-lawyers ("advice-of-counsel") defense, saying that SBF’s actions were a function of other people’s bad advice. Given that, he would be better emphasizing incompetence, rather than presenting himself as a would-be vice president of operations.

SBF’s haircut was top news among mainstream outlets reporting the trial, probably because there’s not much to write about at this stage. This is jury-selection week. They all remarked on SBF’s new appearance, because the hair was such a central part of SBF’s schtick as a ruffled anti-establishment genius.

But will the new look win over a jury? That seems unlikely. SBF has already been indicted in the court of public opinion and his public image is well known. A change of appearance isn’t going to change that. We think we know him, even if we don’t. In this context, turning up at court as a different type of person isn’t going to help much.

SBF now looks like any other defendant in a serious fraud trial. He would have been better playing his unusual self than playing someone nobody recognizes.

Edited by Daniel Kuhn.

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Ben Schiller

Ben Schiller is CoinDesk's managing editor for features and opinion. Previously, he was editor-in-chief at BREAKER Magazine and a staff writer at Fast Company. He holds some ETH, BTC and LINK.