Opening arguments in the highly anticipated trial of Elizabeth Holmes are set to begin on Wednesday, with jurors expected to hear prosecutors make the case that the Theranos founder knowingly defrauded investors and patients.
Holmes, 37, founded the blood testing company after dropping out of Stanford University at age 19 and quickly became a star in the startup world, fashioning herself as the female Steve Jobs. She graced the cover of a number of magazines, and tests were rolled out in Walgreens stores.
The company dazzled Silicon Valley and was valued in the billions before its bold claims about revolutionary blood testing machines were revealed to be largely false. When the company fell from grace and eventually folded in 2018, it became a cautionary tale about the Silicon Valley hype machine.
As the trial gets underway, early court filings have suggested lawyers for Holmes may try to prove she was manipulated by an “abusive” relationship with her former romantic partner and business associate Ramesh “Sunny” Balwani into over-promising the capabilities of Theranos devices. Balwani, who faces his own trial in 2022 for fraud, has denied these claims.
Holmes told a psychologist that Balwani was controlling, “monitoring her calls, text messages, and emails; physical violence, such as throwing hard, sharp objects at her; restricting her sleep”, according to a February 2020 filing from Balwani’s lawyers, who said the allegations required separate trials.
The trial comes after months of delays caused first by the global pandemic and then Holmes’s own pregnancy. She welcomed her first child with her partner, the hotel heir Billy Evans, on 5 August.
Legal experts say beyond the alleged abuse defense, it appears Holmes will argue she did not fully understand the complex science behind the devices and believed they worked.
“The best way to argue a defense in a science-based case is to suggest that this young woman had a good faith belief that this science was real,” said defense lawyer Benjamin Brafman, who is not involved in the case.
The most serious charges of wire fraud require prosecutors to prove Holmes acted with intent to defraud. To convict Holmes, the jury of twelve must unanimously find her guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of intending to defraud customers and investors.
In court filings, Holmes’ attorneys have argued there is a missing link between what Holmes herself knew and what Theranos employees told doctors and regulators about the company’s technology.
“Corporate executives generally do not face individual criminal liability for the actions and statements of a corporation’s agents or employees, and that principle holds equally true in this case,” they wrote.
Holmes’ lawyers said last year that she was “highly likely” to take the stand in her own defense, a move that experts called risky. It could backfire if jurors do not view her as credible and give prosecutors latitude to bring in a broader range of evidence, they said.
The trial officially began last week with three days of jury selection, in which more than 200 people were called and dozens were questioned. The court struggled to find jurors who had not heard about the widely-covered case, asking many prospective jurors if they could set aside what they think they know and judge Holmes fairly.
Others were asked if they had experience with domestic violence that would impact their judgment, given the defense Holmes is anticipated to use.
The trial is anticipated to last 15 weeks.