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Lawyers swap closing statements in trial of Sam Bankman-Fried: ‘Pyramid of deceit’ or just ‘bad business judgements’?

Lawyers swap closing statements in trial of Sam Bankman-Fried: ‘Pyramid of deceit’ or just ‘bad business judgements’?

Since November 2022, Sam Bankman-Fried, the cofounder and former CEO of FTX, has told one story of his crypto exchange’s collapse. Since December, the Justice Department has told a different one.

Was Bankman-Fried an awkward math nerd who acted in good faith up until FTX declared bankruptcy? Or was he a criminal mastermind who erected a crypto empire with stolen customer funds?

On Wednesday, as they delivered their closing statements to the jury, lawyers for both sides swapped stories for the final time—and gave the most crystallized accounts of why they think the former CEO of FTX is either guilty of multiple counts of fraud or an innocent man who simply made bad business decisions.

‘A pyramid of deceit’

Nicolas Roos, a prosecutor for the government, started his closing statement in the same way Thane Rehn, another prosecutor, opened the trial: pointing at Bankman-Fried to declare that “this man” was responsible for stealing billions of dollars from thousands of people.

“This was a pyramid of deceit,” he said of FTX, speaking animatedly as he faced the jury.

Roos listed out the facts that weren’t in dispute: customers lost billions of dollars, customers believed their deposits to be secure, and FTX had a massive hole in its balance sheet after its collapse. So, what was in contention? Whether Bankman-Fried knew that taking customers’ cryptocurrency and cash off his exchange was “wrong.”

Roos proceeded to point to what he called the “overwhelming evidence of Bankman-Fried’s guilt,” including six examples, derived from witness testimony and government exhibits, of when he “doubled down,” or continued to use customer funds rather than come clean and admit to fraud.

Using two backdoors from Alameda, his crypto hedge fund, into FTX, Bankman-Fried withdrew crypto and cash to pay for real estate, venture investments, celebrity partnerships, among other expenses. These episodes of “doubling down” included a $2.2 billion stock buyback from Binance, $1.2 billion of which was from customers, the government claimed.

As for Bankman-Fried’s testimony when he took the witness stand? “He lied to you,” Roos said to the jury about the former crypto mogul, whose confident answers under direct examination were “obviously rehearsed.” When the government questioned Bankman-Fried, “he was a different person,” said the prosecutor. “He approached every question as if up was down and down was up.”

After a lunch break, into what approached an almost four-hour-long closing statement, Roos rested his case: “The defendant is overwhelmingly, beyond reasonable doubt, guilty.”

‘Bad business decisions’

As opposed to Roos—who spoke loudly and gesticulated vigorously—Mark Cohen, one of Bankman-Fried’s lawyers, delivered his closing statement in the soothing tones of a bedtime story.

“Thank you for your service in this case,” Cohen said to the jury in the late afternoon. “You’ve all done an excellent job.”

He then delivered a “a real-world” account of Bankman-Fried’s rise and fall, as opposed to the government’s “movie-world” narrative. Bankman-Fried was not a movie-style villain, he told the jury, a metaphor he would often repeat throughout his closing statement. He was a math nerd who was merely acting in “good faith.”

He harped on Bankman-Fried’s good faith not just for narrative effect. “Good faith” is an appropriate legal defense to allegations of fraud, he said. If Bankman-Fried did not purposefully and knowingly engage in a criminal conspiracy, then he should not be found guilty, Cohen argued.

Echoing his opening, Cohen said that FTX was an “innovative” business with “excellent products.” Its fall was not the result of years-long fraud but because of bad business decisions. “Bad business decisions are not a crime,” Cohen told the jury.

As for Bankman-Fried’s performance on the witness stand? “Unlike the government witnesses, he was far from polished,” said Cohen. Instead, “he was Sam,” unvarnished and unfiltered.

Cohen’s closing statement stretched from the late afternoon into the early evening. On Thursday, the government will deliver a rebuttal. Then, the decision of who “was Sam” will not be litigated by lawyers. It will be decided by the jury.

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