At a glance
- Jurors reached a decision to convict on all seven counts in under five hours on Thursday, a judgment as surprisingly swift and decisive as the trial itself.
- Bankman-Fried’s sentencing will take place March 28, 2024. He faces as much as 110 years in prison. The final sentence may be more like 25-50 years, but his deceptive testimony will do him no favors.
- The government has until February 1 to decide whether to pursue a second trial for further charges, including campaign finance fraud and bribery.
Late on Thursday, November 2, a jury in Manhattan found Sam Bankman-Fried guilty on seven counts of wire fraud, conspiracy, and money laundering. The judgment marks somewhat of an end to one of the biggest financial frauds in American history. Bankman-Fried’s name is now scrawled in the mud of eternity alongside figures like Bernie Madoff, Elizabeth Holmes, Jho Low, and Charles Ponzi himself.
Both the jury’s deliberation, and the trial itself, were swifter than expected. The trial wrapped nearly two weeks ahead of schedule after pieces of the defense’s proposed arguments were stripped away by Judge Lewis Kaplan’s rulings. Kaplan also seemed eager to push things to their conclusion this week, tacking extra hours onto the court day both Wednesday and Thursday.
Kaplan offered to let the jurors stay nearly four hours later than normal on Thursday. Pizza was ordered for what could have been a lengthy slog through seven complex charges — but at 7:45, just before the 8pm deadline, the jury announced they’d reached a verdict.
Bankman-Fried’s parents, the Stanford professors Barbara Fried and Joseph Bankman, were present in court nearly every day of the trial — including for the announcement of the verdict. When the forewoman of the jury began reading the decision, Bankman collapsed forward in his seat. Fried, whose uncontrollable tics and tremors became more and more pronounced as the trial progressed, briefly stuck her fingers in her ears, as if wishing not to hear.
Bankman-Fried himself gave one last characteristic display. He was ordered to stand and face the jury during the reading of the verdict, and gave no visible reaction as it came down. He then sat in his chair again, but changed his mind and stood back up, then for a moment hovered half-out of his chair and glanced around as if hoping someone would tell him what to do. His legal team offered no advice.
There are many reasons to resent both Bankman-Fried and his parents, who benefitted from and allegedly helped shape his fraud. But in the moment of truth, it was hard not to empathize with their suffering and confusion. Even for those of us who helped uncover and pursue the FTX fraud, there was little joy in watching something very close to the end of a human life.
After the reading of the judgment, jurors were released and court officers gratefully clocked out. But Bankman-Fried and his legal team lingered in the courtroom, whispering in a huddle, lead lawyer Mark Cohen placing his hand on Sam’s shoulder reassuringly as a gaggle of journalists looked on. Barbara and Joe, holding each other, moved behind the defense table, preparing to say goodbye to their son.
But they weren’t allowed a final hug or a lengthy goodbye. Sam barely looked at his parents before being escorted to meet his fate.
The aftermath of Sam Bankman-Fried’s trial
There will be a few grace notes to Sam Bankman-Fried’s symphony of waste and stupidity.
He was returned to federal custody last night, but his sentence won’t be decided until March 28, 2024. Bankman-Fried could receive as much as 110 years, but the actual number is subject to a calculation of victim impact, and Judge Kaplan’s sense of Bankman-Fried’s remorse.
Given that Bankman-Fried seems to have lied on the stand, though, Kaplan is unlikely to feel lenient. A widespread estimate is that Bankman-Fried will be sentenced to around 25 years hard time, emerging from prison in his mid-fifties.
Sam may also have to stand trial again. A second set of charges, notably including alleged campaign finance violations, were severed from the current case for procedural reasons relating to Bankman-Fried’s extradition from the Bahamas. They are currently scheduled to be tried on March 11 of next year, but the government has until February 1 to let Judge Kaplan know if they intend to move forward with the trial.
Sometimes once an initial conviction is secured in situations like this, further charges aren’t pursued. In this case, though, dropping the campaign finance charges could be politically dicey: in an undeniably rich bit of irony, Bankman-Fried’s criminal concealment of donations was part of a plan to craft his image as a Democratic megadonor. That has led to conspiracy theories among right-wingers that could trigger outrage if he’s let off the hook for, among other allegations, funneling money through straw donors into his mother’s political action committee.
There will also be a series of post-trial motions between now and the end of November. It seems very likely Bankman-Fried’s defense team will pursue an appeal, though Mark Cohen didn’t quite go that far in a brief statement last night. Instead he made the vaguer promise to “keep fighting.”
Finally, there remain months if not years of work cleaning up the immense mess wrought by a handful of wildly reckless fraudsters. That includes a series of clawback lawsuits filed in recent months by the FTX estate, including a suit against FTX legal chief Dan Friedberg, and another against Joe Bankman and Barbara Fried. One lingering but major question is whether Sam’s parents are also in criminal jeopardy, given what appears to have been a substantial role in both directing and benefitting from the fraud.
FTX wasn’t just a fraud, it was a cult
The story of Sam Bankman-Fried is an incredibly sprawling saga, a puzzle box whose deeper chambers remain to be fully unlocked. The trial itself, though, drew a clearer picture of one specific element: the relationship between Sam and his confessed co-conspirators Nishad Singh, Gary Wang, and Caroline Ellison.
Many in the crypto world prior to the trial had assumed FTX’s top leadership were, in essence, a gang of thieves gleefully collaborating on a complex con. But while there’s no question Nishad, Gary, and Caroline engaged in criminal behavior, the trial instead painted a picture of something closer to a cult, in which Bankman-Fried cajoled, bullied, and manipulated those around him into doing his bidding.
This is most obvious in the case of Caroline Ellison, who for deeply mysterious reasons seems to have been madly in love with Sam Bankman-Fried. Her willingness to take what was ultimately a fall-guy role as CEO of Alameda Research, while getting badly shortchanged on her compensation, was just one way Sam bent her to his will.
Nishad Singh, meanwhile, appears to have been a “true believer” in the image that Sam Bankman-Fried crafted. In particular, Singh claimed in testimony to have been enticed by the tenets of effective altruism, and described giving away large portions of his pay to charities during his time working for Sam. But Singh made his donations to actual, real charities, while Bankman-Fried gave money to “pandemic research” and “political action” organizations controlled by his own family members. It’s little wonder that Singh, who originally joined Alameda way back in 2017, seemed to feel most deeply betrayed by Sam.
Gary Wang is the most difficult of the three to assess, but his apparently extreme social alienation at least hints at why he was so easy for Sam to manipulate. While Bankman-Fried literally can’t seem to shut up, Wang is frequently described as close to non-verbal. Given their longtime closeness, it’s not hard to imagine Gary seeing Sam as a kind of protector, a shield against the outside world, who asked only for Wang’s coding skills and loyalty in return.
While this was the biggest change in the story that took shape during the trial, the proceeding featured a truly vast trove of exhibits and testimony that remain to be picked over. There may even be more major bombshells to uncover – but Sam himself, at least, has been stopped.