Sam Bankman-Fried’s Desperate Last Stand

If his trial were going better, the fallen crypto king wouldn’t be testifying in his own defense.

AccessTimeIconOct 25, 2023 at 6:37 p.m. UTC
Updated Jun 14, 2024 at 6:59 p.m. UTC

As the trial of Sam Bankman-Fried has unfolded the last couple of weeks, one question has lingered heavily in the air. Would he testify?

We now know the answer.

Today, SBF’s defense team revealed that the fallen crypto king would indeed be taking the stand. It could happen as early as Thursday, as the prosecution side hands over to the defense to make its case.

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SBF has faced a barrage of incriminating testimony at the federal courthouse in Lower Manhattan. Once close and intimate colleagues, including Caroline Ellison, Nishad Singh and Gary Wang, all now working with the government, have lined up to say SBF knowingly defrauded investors, lenders and customers to the tune of billions of dollars. Legal observers agree that the case has been going extremely badly for SBF and that the defense has generally failed to hit its stride thus far.

“I haven't seen a genius level of defense that you would expect to see with somebody who has money,” Joseph Tully, a prominent criminal defense attorney, told a CoinDesk Twitter Spaces event about the trial last week. “I think what this case needs is a street fighter and I don't think SBF is getting that. And that's disappointing to me."

Such was the defense’s poor showing in questioning witnesses that the judge even seemed to be mocking SBF’s lawyers at times. “There were some moments where the judge seemed to almost be making fun of the defense lawyer," Josh Klayman, a digital assets lawyer with Linklaters, told the same Spaces panel. "There were moments of levity and yet they were levity at the expense, in my view, of the defense counsel."

Klayman and Tully both thought SBF would take the stand this week – for two reasons.

One, SBF has long had confidence in his persuasive capabilities. Following FTX’s collapse last November, SBF back-channeled with numerous reporters to tell his side of story, often downplaying his knowledge of what was happening and – in a preview of his current defense – making out that he was more out-of-his-depth than malevolent and calculating. He even started his own Substack, going against the advice of numerous lawyers who cautioned against self-incrimination. And two: He has nothing to lose at this point. SBF is very likely to be convicted on at least some of the multiple counts of fraud he faces, and he’s very likely to go to prison. His best chance of a reduced sentence, the thinking goes, is to make a case that he never intended to defraud.

That’s key, because the prosecution needs to prove not only that investors and customers were defrauded, but that SBF knowingly and deliberately did so.

But testifying in your own defense is highly risky, Tully said. SBF may be forced to say things he doesn’t want to say and to be pressed on questions and details he hadn’t expected to be pressed on. Moreover, in SBF’s case, he has to tread a fine line between coming across as a “credible witness” and playing the “out-of-his-depth” neophyte that his defense strategy rests on.

"It's a double-edged sword. The more they put him on the stand and the more articulate and organized he is, it cuts against their defense that he's a math nerd and basically the 'SBF is an idiot’ defense," Tully told CoinDesk last week.

As theater, the spectacle of SBF testifying will be unmissable. We’ll finally see the man himself, unfiltered and unmediated by his enablers. We’ll see a human being who once had so much reduced to explaining the fine detail of his failings. We’ll see a man who was a hero of entrepreneurial daring laid bare.

In many ways, it seems only fitting. SBF rose on the back of his own myth-making abilities. Now his fate rests on his capacity to tell a story, and play a role, that might help reduce his jail time. But it will be tough to watch as well. SBF will occupy a place nobody ever wants to be, and he will be alone, without the filter of others to hold his hand and make him look good.

It’s a desperate gamble and yet, apparently, the only real play SBF has left. If he wants to reshape the narrative of the case, he has no choice but to go bat for himself and hope for the best.

Edited by Ben Schiller.


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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.