NEW YORK — Sam Bankman-Fried must wait a bit longer to find out which 12-18 New Yorkers will hold his fate in their hands – but he does not face the death penalty, the judge overseeing his case reassured a potential juror.
The first day of the FTX founder’s trial adjourned Tuesday without a jury being seated, though a few dozen prospective jurors were excused. Around 50 people were left in the pool at the end of the day, Judge Lewis Kaplan said before dismissing the remaining prospects in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. Twelve jurors and six alternates will be picked Wednesday morning, and the judge said he expects opening arguments to begin shortly after.
As he has been in most previous hearings, Bankman-Fried was present Tuesday, wearing a suit and sporting a haircut sans his trademark curly mop. Unlike his last court appearance, he was not shackled walking in. He spent most of the day on a laptop conferring with his attorneys.
The one-time power broker of the cryptocurrency industry is accused of conducting what prosecutors have characterized as one of the largest financial frauds in history. His twin crypto companies FTX and Alameda collapsed last November after customer withdrawals exposed an $8 billion hole in their balance sheets. He could face decades in prison if convicted.
The trial itself will likely begin Wednesday after jury selection – voir dire – wraps up. The prosecution expects a roughly 25-30 minute opening statement, while the defense anticipates taking 35-40 minutes. The first witnesses should take the stand later in the day.
Most of Tuesday was spent weeding out prospective jurors based on their response to general questions ranging from their religious beliefs and physical disabilities to potential financial hardships that could complicate their participation in the trial estimated to last six weeks. Several revealed that they or loved ones lost money investing in crypto, including one whose twin brother was nearly ruined.
“Did you make money or did you lose money,” Kaplan asked one prospect. “Lost money,” the prospect chuckled in response. Another said her fiancé invested some of their money in cryptocurrency. “Win or lose,” queried Kaplan. “Lose,” she responded.
No prospective jurors said they made money in crypto. One young man said he was fundamentally against crypto without explaining why. Another insisted “I don't understand cryptocurrency” despite his son’s attempts to teach him. He then gave Bernie Madoff a shoutout.
Other questions included potential bias about the use of cooperating witnesses – which include Bankman-Fried’s former romantic partner Caroline Ellison, early Alameda Research hire Nishad Singh and the hedge fund’s co-founder Gary Wang – and whether jurors had strong views on the policies regarding the charges against Bankman-Fried.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Danielle Sassoon also rattled off a number of other names of potential witnesses or people tied to the case, including former FTX executives Sam Trabucco, Ryne Miller, Ryan Salame and Mark Wetjen, and Bankman-Fried’s parents – Barbara Fried and Joseph Bankman.
Nicholas Roos, one of the federal prosecutors, said Bankman-Fried was never offered a plea deal.
Before the prospective jurors walked in, the judge told Bankman-Fried: "You have the right to testify in your defense in this case,” even if his lawyers don’t want him to.
It remains unclear whether Bankman-Fried will do so. He’s been vocal about his innocence in the past.
Moments from the trial
One odd moment saw a juror who knew of FTX through work tell Judge Kaplan she couldn’t reach a guilty verdict if the punishment for Bankman-Fried included a death penalty. While jurors are instructed to render their judgements irrespective of the convict’s resulting punishment, Judge Kaplan broke that norm to assure her that death was not on the table in a financial crimes case.
Another juror said she had to travel to attend a wedding later in the month.
“How close is the relationship between you and” the person getting married, Judge Lewis Kaplan asked the prospective juror. She responded: “My husband’s co-worker.”
Another said she was flying to Maui for six months. “You’re a courageous soul,” the judge quipped before asking for additional context.
When Kaplan asked if any of the jurors came to court on Tuesday with “personal knowledge” of Bankman-Fried, several raised their hands in the affirmative. When questioned individually, most of these people recalled learning about the case in the media.
One member of the jury pool said he’d listened to “a podcast of someone who studied this particular case.” What podcast? “Joe Rogan,” said the juror.
Kaplan also probed the jury pool on whether they had any biases that would make it difficult for them to be impartial. “I’m not sure how unbiased I could be about crypto given how negative I feel about it,” said one prospective juror.
UPDATE (Oct. 3, 2023, 21:40 UTC): Adds details throughout.
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