Sam Bankman-Fried had a grin on his face as he entered court on Tuesday morning – clad in a black suit and an uncharacteristically tame (read: closely trimmed) mop of hair. After nine long months, the disgraced crypto founder will finally have the chance to defend himself against a wide array of federal fraud and conspiracy charges tied to the collapse of FTX, his crypto and futures exchange, and Alameda Research, the crypto trading firm he founded and – according to prosecutors – used to illegally re-invest FTX user funds.
The first day of the Bankman-Fried trial was all about voir dire, the process by which a judge, defense, and prosecution worked together to filter more than 80 New Yorkers to a final group of 12 jurors and six alternates. Judge Lewis Kaplan, the judge overseeing the case, peppered the jury pool with questions.
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Underscoring the trial’s location in the heart of New York’s financial district – and the scale of Bankman-Fried’s once-giant crypto empire – the initial list of potential jurors included people whose professions overlapped with Alameda and FTX. One potential juror said she had worked until recently at Signature, the crypto-friendly bank that crumbled earlier this year and had ties to Alameda and FTX. Another member of the jury pool said her employer had invested directly in Alameda and FTX.
“Did your employer make or lose money as a result of their investments?” asked Kaplan. “Lost money,” said the juror.
The goal of Kaplan’s questions was to suss out which of the many prospective jurors would be able to serve impartially – a particularly complex endeavor given the headline-grabbing nature of Bankman-Fried’s crypto collapse, as the judge acknowledged at the start of voir dire: “It would not surprise me if some of you have heard about this case.”
When Kaplan asked if anyone in the room had seen a recent 60 Minutes segment – an interview with author Michael Lewis about his just-released book about the rise and fall of Sam Bankman-Fried – at least seven jurors raised their hands (most members of the jury pool were stationed in an overflow room on the first floor of the courthouse).
Bankman-Fried sat silently between his attorneys throughout the bulk of the jury selection process. Mostly, he spent his time pecking away at a laptop keyboard. His attorneys have previously expressed concern that he would not have enough time to review materials or otherwise work on his defense after his bond was revoked in August and he was sent to the Metropolitan Detention Center.
Despite the seriousness of the accusations facing Bankman-Fried, his mood from the court’s overflow rooms – where press was sequestered – seemed to range from neutral to positive. The judge himself cracked a few jokes during the jury selection process, though he hammered certain prospective jurors who appeared to be trying very hard to avoid serving for the trial. One prospect tried three different sets of excuses – none of which appeared to convince the judge.
The judge also spoke to Bankman-Fried directly at the beginning of the day, letting the FTX founder know he had the right to testify in his own defense – even if his attorneys didn’t expect or plan for him to do so.
“The decision is up to you,” the judge said, before telling Bankman-Fried how to alert Judge Kaplan that he wished to testify should the defense rest without calling the FTX founder. It’s unclear if Bankman-Fried will actually testify.
What we're expecting
Jury selection should conclude Wednesday, according to Judge Lewis Kaplan, who is overseeing the trial in the Southern District of New York courthouse. There are around 50 potential jurors remaining, after he dismissed a few dozen during yesterday’s voir dire. Of the remainder, 12 will become jurors and six will be named as alternates, potentially as soon as later Wednesday morning.
The process will see the jurors talk about themselves and their backgrounds briefly so the various attorneys have a better understanding of who they are, the judge said.
The judge expects opening statements to kick off Wednesday. One prosecutor said he expects the Department of Justice’s opening statement to last no longer than 30 minutes, while the defense anticipates taking up to 40 minutes. This means we could begin hearing from witnesses by Wednesday afternoon.
A pair of FBI agents were present in the courtroom Tuesday, though it’s unclear if they will be the DOJ’s opening witnesses.
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