In the end, Sam Bankman-Fried simply had no choice. With his defence in tatters and facing decades in prison, lawyers for the disgraced crypto king confirmed in a conference call on Wednesday that he will take the stand at his multi-billion dollar fraud and money-laundering trial on Thursday. For three weeks, the 31-year-old has fidgeted nervously in court as former executives at his FTX crypto exchange have testified how he recklessly and systematically directed them to funnel billions of dollars of customer deposits to prop up risky bets in his hedge fund Alameda Research.
His former girlfriend Caroline Ellison, and fellow former confidantes Nishad Singh and Gary Wang told the jury that SBF stole billions of dollars to fund political donations, sponsorship deals and high-end real estate investments. His own lawyers’ muddling efforts to undercut the credibility of the trio of star prosecution witnesses, who have admitted their guilt in FTX’s collapse and accepted plea deals, appear to have gone nowhere.
The former billionaire will now have to put on the performance of a lifetime to convince a jury that he was just a kid who got in over his head. Bankman-Fried, known as SBF, used to regularly testify before US lawmakers on Capitol Hill, impressing titans of commerce, culture and politics, and even mused about becoming US president himself one day. Now he must convince 12 regular New Yorkers of his innocence.
His appearance in the witness box, an inherently risky strategy that will open him to intensive cross-examination of his many public statements and writings, has been the subject of intense interest throughout the trial. In the run-up to deciding whether Mr Bankman-Fried should testify, his lawyers complained to Judge Lewis Kaplan that he could not fully participate without his complete prescription of Adderall, which he uses to treat ADHD.
That situation has reportedly been resolved, in spite of a nationwide shortage of Adderall. Bankman-Fried, a vegan, had also been forced to survive on a diet of bread, water, and “sometimes peanut butter”, and been deprived access to the internet as he tried to prepare his defence. Mark Kasten, a specialist crypto attorney at Buchanan, Ingersoll & Rooney, previously told The Independent that Mr Bankman-Fried’s only hope of acquittal will be to convince the jury that he was an idiot savant, “a kid moving too fast in a young industry and he didn’t know what he was doing”.
“He’s going to tell a story that starting a crypto company when he did was difficult, that this was the Wild West, and he wasn’t operating an entity that fell neatly into any existing regulatory category,” Kasten said.
The problem with that portrayal is that Bankman-Fried is a highly intelligent MIT graduate, whose parents are both Stanford law professors, and he amassed an estimated $26bn fortune in just a few years. The jurors who will decide his fate include a nurse, a high school librarian, a train conductor and a retired corrections officer. Presumably, none have rented a $30m Bahamas penthouse, hung out with Tom Brady or flown regularly by private jet.
But their BS detectors would be familiar with just about every excuse in the book from adults trying to pass themselves off as naughty children who didn’t know the rules.
SBF’s reputation prior to the collapse of FTX as a Toyota Corolla-driving, baggy short-wearing, “effective altruist” was a key part of his self-mythologising. Stripped back to just another suspected white collar criminal with a sob story to tell, Mr Bankman-Fried will have to spin a masterful story to have any chance of acquittal.