SBF Trial: The Last Day of Summer Camp

Sam Bankman-Fried's trial ended, in the words of his defense attorney, "gradually, then suddenly."

AccessTimeIconNov 9, 2023 at 11:00 a.m. UTC

We weren't really sure if it was the last day or not. The jury determining Sam Bankman-Fried's fate had begun deliberating the charges just a few hours before, after Judge Lewis Kaplan had spent much of the morning and some time after lunch reading out a 60-page charging document. Surely a case of this complexity – seven different charges, billions of dollars allegedly stolen, questions about whether witnesses were telling the truth – would take a while.

But as the press pool enjoyed pizza and canned sodas (or their fourth? fifth? cup of coffee) last Thursday, there was a definite sense of finality in the air. Over the past month, some 20 or 30 of us had been reaching the Daniel Patrick Moynihan United States Courthouse in lower Manhattan before the sun rose. Reporters arrived at 5 a.m. – or earlier (way, way earlier) – to make it into the main courtroom or at least snag one of the better seats in the overflow room. By Thursday, all of that was done. There was no more testimony forthcoming, we'd seen all of the witnesses and so many exhibits had been introduced that the judge and attorneys had been cracking jokes about their volume.

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Throughout October, many of us scrambled to file stories as news happened. Whether it was former Alameda Research CEO Caroline Ellison testifying that Bankman-Fried had authorized an attempt to bribe Chinese government officials or an accountancy professor testifying about funds flowing through bank accounts, you could often step right outside the courthouse and see a line of reporters calling their editors, typing up their notes or recording podcasts wherever they found a spot.

Every news organization had its own particular method. CoinDesk sought to provide real-time updates as we could, sending reporters out to file stories while testimony was still underway, similarly to many of our colleagues. Other news organizations published broader takeaways at the end of a trial day. Some posted their works early the next morning. It really was a microcosm of the world of journalism.

And though we were competitors, there was also a strong sense of camaraderie among the different news organizations that were regularly represented. Many of us showed up in the dark of night and just hung out until the court would let us in shortly before 8 a.m. There wasn't much else to do besides chat, maybe catch up on some reading, fill out a crossword, go for a coffee run (or in one case, an actual run) or talk about LEGO (iykyk).

Because of the way the court operated, how exactly we operated ended up strangely regimented. The line outside the courthouse organized itself by the first 20 or so to show up a few minutes before the doors opened. Once inside, we lined up again, waiting for the actual courtrooms to open around 9 a.m. We had lunch at specific times, we left as a group and we'd do it all again the next day.

When exactly we showed up changed. Early on, reporters and the few odd members of the public got there around 4 or 5 a.m. and it was fine. Sadly, this state of affairs didn't last. Katie Baker, a features writer with The Ringer, called the arrival time "a rapidly moving target."

"I live in a ski town, and there’s truly just one simple trick to getting the best spot in the lift line on a powder day: arrive before everyone else," she said. "What made the SBF trial a particularly hectic challenge, though, was that 'before everyone else' was a rapidly moving target – a Jane Street Capital interview question of a logistical decision, come to think of it!"

People lined up as early as the night before to hear Bankman-Fried himself testify. On Friday, the first full day he spoke, more than 100 people were in line by 9 a.m., vastly outstripping the number of people who showed up early to watch Ellison or other FTX insiders.

Brady Dale, a former CoinDesker who's now part of the Axios Crypto reporting team, said he showed up at 2 a.m. one day. The temperature was around 50 degrees Fahrenheit (10 degrees Celsius) that night – not that cold, on the face of it.

"Here's the thing. What isn't that cold to you when you're just outside for 10 or 20 minutes becomes quite cold when you're outside for seven hours," he said. "You've got a little light armor of warmth on the edge of your skin that protects you when you hit the cold. Fifty is high enough that it leaches the heat out slowly, but it does leach it out. You will get crazy cold after a couple hours."

Baker, who arrived similarly early some of the nights, noted that it rained during at least one of the nights she showed up early:

"It wasn’t necessarily fun to spend an entire workday waiting in the rain to begin my workday, but also … it kind of was? I loved getting deeply acquainted with so many brilliant reporters (even the ones whose names I was too embarrassed to ask because by that point I had seen and spoken to them every day for weeks) and sampling all the breakfast sandwiches the Southern District of New York has to offer. It was an honor to hurry up and wait with you all."

And yeah, it was fun (I say as someone who usually never showed up before 5, and occasionally didn't make it until closer to 8:30 on less-busy days).

Aleks Gilbert, a reporter with DL News, called covering the trial "one of the highlights of my career," citing both the magnitude of the trial as well as the morning scrum.

"The conversations were often the same: 'man, I’m tired' or 'gee, it’s cold this morning' or something about the cast of courtroom characters: the surly judge; the petite, coldblooded prosecutor; Sam’s parents; his overmatched attorneys," he said. "But it was fine. After spending 12 to 16 hours each day (a) in the courthouse, (b) standing just outside it, or (c) writing about it, what else was there to talk about? A meteor could have hit D.C. and I wouldn’t have heard about it until I got in line the next morning."

By 11 a.m. on Thursday, there was very little left to cover. There was a final argument from the DOJ, but it was brief. The jury charge, while important, didn't substantially differ from the proposals or hearings discussing them, so there was really only one news story left to write: Bankman-Fried guilty, or not guilty. Experienced court reporters explained that typically deliberations for a case of this complexity took days, certainly more than the four hours available Thursday. The fact that reading the charge itself didn't end before 3 p.m. suggested we were going to be back on Monday.

So we waited, and we had pizza.

And then, just 20 minutes before court was set to let out for the day, we heard the jury had reached a verdict and it would be announced in seven minutes.

A few hours later, the trial was over.

— Nikhilesh De

Editor's notes

Welcome, folks, to the final edition of this newsletter – for now. It's been a heck of a ride, from those first editions in the weeks leading up to the biggest trial in crypto to here and now.

Feel free to continue sending feedback and questions over the coming months. For those of you interested in continuing to follow CoinDesk's reporting, might I suggest our other newsletters and podcasts? State of Crypto follows policy issues weekly (disclaimer: I write this one), The Node keeps readers up to speed on general crypto happenings, Carpe Consensus (co-hosted by Danny) digs into all sorts of things and First Mover is your home for market updates.

To the thousands of you who signed up to read this, thanks for joining us. We'll send out the odd special issue if there's significant news, and we may bring this back for trial number two in March, but of course all things are in flux until they happen. Till then – this isn't goodbye, it's see you later.

— Nikhilesh De

Edited by Nick Baker.


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CoinDesk is an award-winning media outlet that covers the cryptocurrency industry. Its journalists abide by a strict set of editorial policies. In November 2023, CoinDesk was acquired by the Bullish group, owner of Bullish, a regulated, digital assets exchange. The Bullish group is majority-owned by; both companies have interests in a variety of blockchain and digital asset businesses and significant holdings of digital assets, including bitcoin. CoinDesk operates as an independent subsidiary with an editorial committee to protect journalistic independence. CoinDesk employees, including journalists, may receive options in the Bullish group as part of their compensation.

Nikhilesh De

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