The Sam Bankman-Fried Trial: It’s the Courthouse Life for Us

To get a courtroom seat, you gotta show up early: at least 7:30 a.m. The overflow room is more relaxed, but there’s no Sam, just his televised image.

AccessTimeIconOct 23, 2023 at 10:00 a.m. UTC
Updated Oct 23, 2023 at 5:07 p.m. UTC

New York’s hottest courtroom is SDNY 26A.

Located in a heavily guarded skyscraper near the Financial District, this four-day-a-week perp party is the creation of alleged crypto fraudster Sam “your money’s gone!” Bankman-Fried.

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This place has everything: Reporters, washed-up television stars, a U.S. Marshal who looks like a hunky John Cleese – and that’s just the gallery! Test Judge Lewis Kaplan’s patience and his hair-thinning henchman Andy will give you a verbal spanking.

Look who’s at the witness stand: Is that Sam? We’ll find out soon.

Whimsical comments aside, the month-long trial of Sam Bankman-Fried has indeed turned into a marquee social gathering for the journalists and general onlookers who fight every morning for a seat.

There are two layers to the insanity: the main courtroom and overflow. Top-floor warriors get there before 7:30 a.m. ET for one of the handful of top bench seats the Marshals arbitrarily dole out. Everyone else gets funneled to overflow, a few floors down.

CoinDesk’s trial team has learned the secrets of both. Court is in recess until Thursday, so today we’ll give you a peek behind the curtain.

We’ll start with the courtroom itself. The wood-paneled chamber has three pews reserved for the general public, which is usually composed of reporters. There are at least seven other benches earmarked for in-house reporters, sketch artists, lawyers, friends of the court and family of the defendant, as well as the prosecutors.

In front of the gallery is Sam’s table. During court he’s usually flanked by his attorneys, Mark Cohen and Chris Everdell, and always with two Marshals directly behind him. The next few tables are prosecutors’, followed by court staff and then the bench itself, where Judge Kaplan sits. To their right is the witness stand and the jury box.

Attendees begin filing in around 9:00 a.m. ET. As long as they stay on the Marshals' good side, members of the general public retain their seats until close at 4:30 p.m. ET. But there’s plenty of ways to screw up. Don’t chew gum, don’t use cell phones, don’t read newspapers, don’t rip vapes, don’t wear hats and DO NOT EVEN THINK ABOUT TALKING. All of these infractions can result in eviction and banishment to overflow.

Assuming you 1. Do get in, and 2. Don’t get booted, you have the best seat possible to watch this drama unfold. I recommend watching the jurors’ faces.

– Danny Nelson

Down below, the overflow room is far more relaxed than the main courtroom. Attendees can enter and exit as they need to to file updates (hi!), use the restroom or grab a snack from the cafeteria. People laugh when the judge makes a joke and swap rumors about whether Bankman-Fried will take the stand for his own defense (seems more likely than not).

The jury boxes – there are two in the overflow room, because a second one was built to let jurors distance from each other during COVID, a Marshal told me – have computer monitors that let the gallery see what's happening in the main courtroom. This includes two camera feeds that let us view the attorneys and witnesses, as well as a section dedicated to court exhibits.

Still, there are some key similarities. People watching one of Judge Kaplan's cases – courtroom or overflow – are not allowed to have their phones on them. Even attorneys with passes that might ordinarily allow them to retain their devices have to turn them in.

The only exceptions are the in-house court reporters – journalists who cover the court regularly and are able to work from a separate press room elsewhere in the building.

— Nikhilesh De

What we're expecting

No filings came this weekend. The next deadline to watch for is Monday, when the defense will put forward proposals for any expert witnesses to rebut testimony from the prosecution's case.

The defense originally proposed seven expert witnesses. The judge blocked three from testifying entirely, and the remainder need to file complete disclosures before he'll okay them. Of those, one – University of Michigan Assistant Professor Andrew Di Wu – will not be called, as he was proposed as a rebuttal witness to Compass Lexecon Executive Vice President Andria van der Merwe, who ended up not testifying.

That leaves three possible expert witnesses: Thomas Bishop, Brian Kim and Joseph Pimbley.

Bishop is a consultant who might cover financial figures and calculations. Kim may testify about document metadata, and Pimbley about FTX's codebase, according to previous court filings.

These aren't the only witnesses who may be called, to be clear – the defense may have other, non-expert witnesses. It's unclear whether those names would show up in the public court docket, though they may be being shared privately among the parties and judge.

— Nikhilesh De

Edited by Marc Hochstein.


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Danny Nelson

Danny is CoinDesk's Managing Editor for Data & Tokens. He owns BTC, ETH and SOL.

Nikhilesh De

Nikhilesh De is CoinDesk's managing editor for global policy and regulation. He owns marginal amounts of bitcoin and ether.