NEW YORK, Nov 1 (Reuters) - FTX founder Sam Bankman-Fried's defense lawyer told jurors on Wednesday that prosecutors in his fraud trial sought to portray him as a "villain" and a "monster" because they could not prove he stole billions of dollars from the cryptocurrency exchange's customers.
Attorney Mark Cohen began his closing arguments in Bankman-Fried's trial in Manhattan federal court after the prosecution made its arguments to the 12 jurors for conviction. Prosecutors have accused Bankman-Fried, 31, of stealing $8 billion in one of the biggest financial frauds in U.S. history.
Cohen said prosecutors elicited testimony about Bankman-Fried's sex life and appearance - the former billionaire was known for his unkempt mop of curly locks and wearing shorts and T-shirts - to try to get the jury to dislike him.
"Every movie needs a villain," Cohen said. "And let's face it, an awkward high school math nerd doesn't look particularly villainous. So what did they do? They wrote him into the movie as a villain."
"Time and again, the government has sought to turn Sam into some sort of villain, some sort of monster," Cohen added.
Closing arguments have lasted several hours, and jurors are not expected to get the case before Thursday to begin deliberations. Bankman-Fried may learn his fate just shy of one year after FTX filed for bankruptcy in a swift corporate meltdown that shocked financial markets and wiped out what had been his estimated $26 billion fortune.
In his closing argument, prosecutor Nicolas Roos earlier told jurors that Bankman-Fried simply stole people's money.
"This was a pyramid of deceit built by the defendant on a foundation of lies and false promises, all to get money," Roos said. "Eventually it collapsed, leaving thousands of victims in its wake."
The defense rested its case on Tuesday after Bankman-Fried underwent a second day of tough cross-examination by the prosecution - the risk he ran by opting to testify in this own defense. Bankman-Fried, who pleaded not guilty to two counts of fraud and five counts of conspiracy, tried over three days of testimony to convince the 12 jurors of his innocence.
In all, the jury heard 15 days of testimony. Three of Bankman-Fried's former close confidantes, testifying for the prosecution after entering guilty pleas, said he directed them to commit financial crimes, including helping his crypto-focused Alameda Research hedge fund siphon FTX customer deposits and lying to lenders and investors about the finances of the two companies.
Roos told jurors that there is no question that Alameda used billions of dollars of customer money to pay off Alameda's lenders and to lend money to FTX executives so they could make speculative investments and donate to U.S. political candidates.
Rather, Roos said, the main disputes in the case are over what Bankman-Fried knew about where customer money went and whether it was wrong. Roos he urged jurors not to buy the argument that Bankman-Fried's companies collapsed due to poor business decisions such as Alameda's failure to hedge its bets.
"The defendant was gambling with customer money," Roos said. "When he took the money, and he played roulette with it, he was stealing."
Under questioning from Cohen, Bankman-Fried portrayed himself as a busy CEO who left operational nuts and bolts to subordinates. He made mistakes that harmed customers and employees, Bankman-Fried admitted, but never defrauded anyone or stole money.
Roos countered that Bankman-Fried's digital fingerprints showed he had looked at a document as far back as June 2022 showing that Alameda had a large negative balance on FTX, as well as a spreadsheet Alameda's CEO Caroline Ellison - a prosecution witness - planned to send to lenders that hid its debts to FTX.
"As a result of sending out those fake balance sheets they got new loans," Roos said, adding that the financial statement hid the "crime-y, fraud-y parts" of Alameda's balances.
Bankman-Fried could face decades in prison if convicted on all counts. He has been jailed since August after Kaplan revoked his bail, having concluded he likely tampered with witnesses.
Reporting by Luc Cohen in New York; Editing by Will Dunham
Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.
Reports on the New York federal courts. Previously worked as a correspondent in Venezuela and Argentina.
Jody Godoy reports on banking and securities law. Reach her at [email protected]