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Sam Bankman-Fried is set to take the stand on his own defense as early as Thursday

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The disgraced crypto mogul Sam Bankman-Fried has a reputation for embracing risk. He is taking a huge gamble now. Bankman-Fried is going to testify in his own defense, which, despite what you might have seen on your favorite police procedural, is something most criminal defendants don't do. There is a lot at stake. If a jury finds Bankman-Fried guilty, he could go to prison for life. NPR's David Gura is with us now from outside the federal courthouse in lower Manhattan where Bankman-Fried could take the stand later today. David, good morning.

DAVID GURA, BYLINE: Good morning, Michel.

MARTIN: So could you just set the scene for us? I imagine it's quite a scene. I'm hearing a lot of hubbub out there.

GURA: Yeah. So there is a long line of reporters and members of the public who got here early. I was talking to somebody who got here just shortly after 3 o'clock in the morning, New York time, trying to get a seat in this courtroom. I'd say there are about a few dozen people here who are gathered, waiting to get in. This is a major development. I think it's going to be a bit of a spectacle. The prosecution is expected to rest its case this morning. And then, in fairly short order, the defense is going to start presenting its witnesses, including, we learned yesterday, Sam Bankman-Fried. And there have been a few moments like this over the course of this trial.

The government has presented its case for about three weeks. And there's this trio of cooperating witnesses, including Caroline Ellison, who is Sam Bankman-Fried's ex-girlfriend and also the person who was running his trading firm called Alameda Research. I should say, there was kind of a similar line, Michel, that morning of people who got here extremely early, again, hoping to get into this courtroom that has been tightly packed throughout most of this trial, people trying to get a glimpse of what's going on.

MARTIN: Tell us more about what you've learned about why Sam Bankman-Fried has decided to do this, has decided to testify in his own defense.

GURA: Yeah, as I said, I've been here for three weeks, most days of the trial now. And I've talked to a lot of former federal prosecutors over the course of the trial. And it's pretty clear that so far, it's not gone well for Sam Bankman-Fried. Over three weeks, the U.S. government presented a lot of documentary evidence, including emails and text messages, and the jury heard from those three star witnesses. These were lieutenants in these two crypto companies that Bankman-Fried founded. One was the cryptocurrency exchange FTX, which was wildly popular, one of the biggest cryptocurrency exchanges in the world for a time.

They were also former friends of his. And I said one is an ex-girlfriend, Caroline Ellison. And they lived together in the Bahamas, where FTX was headquartered in this massive $35 million penthouse apartment. They worked together kind of cheek by jowl for six days a week, you know, in really close proximity to one another. They shared meals together. They have all pleaded guilty to criminal charges, and they've been cooperating with the prosecution. They all said that Bankman-Fried directed them to commit crimes, including fraud. And the testimony that they've delivered from the witness stand has been pretty compelling and, again, kind of in complement with that documentary evidence, has told this story that the prosecutors are keen for the jury to understand and believe that a massive fraud was committed here.

Now, that is something that Sam Bankman-Fried has denied. He has pleaded not guilty to these seven charges. He said that he didn't intend to defraud anyone or to commit any crimes, and he's admitted to making mistakes. He's actually blaming those very same people who have testified against him for the collapse of those companies.

MARTIN: OK, but say more about why his decision to testify is risky and why is he taking that risk? I mean, is the argument that this is the only thing he has left?

GURA: I think that that's part of the argument. He's also somebody who has shown time and time again how much he wants to talk and how much he believes in the power of him telling his own story. You know, this is a very rare thing for a defendant to do this. It is not something that a lot of white-collar defense attorneys recommend their clients do because, you know, there's a big potential downside here, and that is Sam Bankman-Fried is going to face cross-examination by federal prosecutors. Tarek Helou is a former U.S. - assistant U.S. attorney. He says Bankman-Fried shouldn't underestimate how tough that cross-examination is going to be.

TAREK HELOU: He's limited by the rules of evidence in terms of what he can say. And these prosecutors are very, very good. This is not the junior varsity. You know, these are some of the best of the best. And I expect the cross-examination of him to be withering.

GURA: Bankman-Fried will face some hard, detailed questions about what happened to those billions of dollars of FTX customer money that disappeared, Michel.

MARTIN: OK, so withering. But despite that, one has to assume he's going to be well-prepared. He's going to go ahead with it and, you know, because why? He thinks, what, the upside is worth the potential risk?

GURA: Yeah. The upside here is that he gets his freedom, the downside is that he goes to jail for the rest of his...

MARTIN: OK.

GURA: ...Prison for the rest of his life. So it is fraught with risk. And we'll see here, perhaps early today, sort of how effective his testimony is for the jury, again, at the federal courthouse here in New York City.

MARTIN: That's NPR's David Gura. He's outside the federal courthouse in lower Manhattan. David, thank you.

GURA: Thanks, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michel Martin is co-host of Morning Edition, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.
David Gura
Based in New York, David Gura is a correspondent on NPR's business desk. His stories are broadcast on NPR's newsmagazines, All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition, and he regularly guest hosts 1A, a co-production of NPR and WAMU.
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