The case of Sam Bankman-Fried is now well-known through extensive media coverage in the fall of 2023. In November, Sam was convicted on multiple counts of fraud. He faced up to 110 years in prison but the prosecution eventually recommended 40-50 years. On March 28,  Judge Lewis Kaplan sentenced Sam to 25 years in prison.

Here’s why we’re involved, and why we think this case is of importance to the autism community:

From the time when this case was publicized in the media, it was picked up by the autism blogosphere and autism community. Mr. Bankman-Fried’s behaviors prior to and during trial set off a recognition among adults with autism and family members. We’ve all been here before. 

The first thing one learns in the autism community is that each individual with autism is different. The autism spectrum is an enormous spectrum of skills and behaviors. Mr. Bankman-Fried is far above nearly all others in a certain set of skills. But he also displays behaviors and co-morbidities common to a range of other individuals with autism—high levels of anxiety and “stimming” actions, lack of eye contact and odd gestures that can undercut credibility, impulses and internal rules that drive self-destructive compulsive behaviors. 

Sam has had several diagnoses of autism, including this diagnosis. 

Behaviors associated with autism are regularly misinterpreted by the criminal justice system and incarceration can inflict disproportionate harm on autistic prisoners. Sam’s case is no exception. Despite the fact that Sam “had a diagnosis of autism that was previously shared with the court”, the prosecution drew the jury’s attention to their need to repeat questions and Sam’s lack of eye contact, before asserting that he was a liar: “He had to be asked and re-asked. He looked away. He lied about big things, and he lied about little things.” 

In their article Autism in the Criminal Justice System, Judge Kimberly Taylor and other experts urge criminal justice professionals to “[u]understand the need to repeat and rephrase questions” and note that “difficulty in maintaining eye contact or insistence on changing the subject of conversation to a topic of their choice—all typical diagnostic behaviors of a person with autism—can mislead an investigator, attorney, or judge.” Judy Mark—a UCLA Disability Studies faculty member who has an autistic son—likewise observes, “A person might also be judged to be lying or evasive due to lack of eye contact”. Moreover, Sam’s sentencing memorandum points out that despite the vague accusations of lying, “[n]either the government nor Probation identifies a single specific line of alleged perjurious testimony." 

Many journalists have reported on how “the prosecutor’s and the judge’s frustration seemed to increase as the hearing dragged on. ‘Listen to the question, and answer the question directly,’ Kaplan directed”. A prosecutor even went so far as to refuse to clarify whether she was referring to net asset value or a particular coin when she said “go negative”. Sam was forced to take a guess at which one she meant, earning him an “I'm not asking for a guess” from the prosecutor and a rebuke from the judge: “you have been asked that question in one form or another quite a number of times and not once did the question include the phrase net asset value”. 

Judy Mark acknowledges “answers that seem non-responsive” and “times when [autistic individuals] might repeat themselves or become obsessed on an issue, something we call perseveration. They might become particularly focused on minute details that others find irrelevant, something we call hyperfocus.” But, Judy explains, “They are not intentionally trying to annoy others.” In fact, Carmine Simpson has described how Sam “treats everyone here with the utmost respect.”