Theranos fraud trial gets under way with jurors grilled on impartiality
Lawyers for the Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes have complained that years of ‘inflammatory’ publicity will make it hard to find unbiased jurors
San Jose — As Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes’s highly anticipated fraud trial began on Tuesday, the judge overseeing the case questioned potential jurors about whether they could be fair considering the intense media coverage about the entrepreneur, who has long been a subject of fascination in Silicon Valley.
Dozens of prospective jurors crowded into a small federal court in San Jose, California, wearing masks and sitting one seat apart to protect against Covid-19.
Holmes, 37, has pleaded not guilty to defrauding Theranos investors and patients by falsely claiming that the now-defunct blood testing company had developed technology to run a wide range of tests on a single drop of blood.
When asked on Tuesday if they had been exposed to media coverage of the case, more than a third of the potential jurors raised their hands. At least one had read “Bad Blood”, Wall Street Journal reporter John Carreyrou’s best-selling book about the Theranos saga.
The book chronicles the rise and fall of the company Holmes started at age 19, concluding that she was a “manipulator” whose “moral compass was badly askew”.
Jury pool members who were questioned about that exposure in court said it would not affect their ability to be impartial.
The meteoric rise and spectacular fall of Theranos turned Holmes from a young billionaire into a defendant who could face years in prison if convicted.
Holmes's lawyers have said she may make the unusual move of taking the stand in her own defence, something that most defendants choose not to do because it opens them up to cross-examination by prosecutors.
Court papers submitted more than 18 months ago and unsealed late on Friday revealed that Holmes had accused former Theranos COO Ramesh “Sunny” Balwani of psychological and sexual abuse.
Holmes's lawyers said her “deference” to Balwani led her to believe allegedly false statements about parts of Theranos that he controlled, including a claim about a partnership with pharmacy chain Walgreens.
The lawyers told US district judge Edward Davila, who is overseeing the case, in 2020 that Holmes was “highly likely” to testify about these claims, court papers show.
Balwani denied allegations of abuse in a 2019 court filing. He is scheduled to be tried on fraud charges related to Theranos Holmes's trial ends.
Lawyers for Holmes and Balwani did not return requests for comment on Monday.
Before coming to court, 200 potential jurors filled out questionnaires about their familiarity with Holmes, who has been the subject of two books, two documentaries and a podcast. Thirty-three potential jurors were excused last week, including some who admitted bias.
Christina Marinakis, a jury consultant with IMS, a provider of expert and litigation consulting services, said prosecutors and Holmes's lawyers have likely combed through potential jurors' social media posts for their views about abuse, since they generally “don't like to talk about these things in open court”.
Marinakis said jurors may be reluctant to admit to a tendency to view a claim of abuse as an “excuse” for Holmes's conduct.
“They may fear they are going to be looked at as misogynists,” she said.
Holmes was 18-years-old when she met Balwani, who is 20 years her senior, and started living with him around three years later, according to Carreyou's book.
Tracy Farrell, a jury consultant who has worked on sexual assault cases involving clergy, said Holmes's lawyers may favour younger jurors, especially women, who might question any attempt by prosecutors to show the abuse defence as “just another con”.
“It creates a kind of dissonance for women,” Farrell said. “We want to believe them.”
Marc Agnifilo, a New York lawyer, said the case had some parallels with that of Martin Shkreli, a former client found guilty in 2017 of bilking investors in his hedge funds.
Before his trial, Shkreli gained notoriety for hiking the price of Daraprim, a drug that treats life-threatening parasitic infections, by more than 4,000% in one day.
Shkreli “inspired this visceral negative reaction that was pretty challenging to keep out of the jury”, Agnifilo said.
Holmes's lawyers, he said, should seek out “smart, open-minded jurors (who) are not just going to buy into the government’s view of the facts.”
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