SAN JOSE, Calif .– Claims by Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes that she was abused by the company’s chief executive, who was her boyfriend at the time, could complicate jury selection in her trial for eagerly awaited fraud, legal experts said.
In-person questioning of potential jurors, up to around 170, began Tuesday in federal court in San José.
Holmes, 37, has pleaded not guilty to defrauding investors and patients at Theranos by wrongly claiming that the company has developed technology that allows a wide range of tests to be performed on a single drop of blood.
Known for dressing in a black Steve Jobs-style turtleneck, Holmes herself has long been an object of fascination in Silicon Valley.
Theranos’ meteoric rise and dramatic fall has transformed Holmes from a young billionaire into an accused who could face years in prison if convicted.
Her lawyers have said she could make the unusual decision of taking a stand in her own defense, which most defendants choose not to do because it exposes them to cross-examination by prosecutors.
Court documents submitted more than 18 months ago and unsealed on Friday night revealed that Holmes had accused Theranos’ former COO Ramesh “Sunny” Balwani of psychological and sexual abuse.
Holmes’ attorneys said her “deference” to Balwani led her to believe in allegedly false statements about parts of Theranos he controlled, including an allegation regarding a partnership with drugstore chain Walgreens.
Lawyers last year told US District Judge Edward Davila, who is overseeing the case, that Holmes was “very likely” to testify about the allegations, court documents show.
Balwani has denied the abuse allegations in a 2019 court file. He is set to stand trial on Theranos-related fraud charges after Holmes’ trial ends.
Lawyers for Holmes and Balwani did not immediately return requests for comment.
Before appearing in court, 200 potential jurors filled out questionnaires about their familiarity with Holmes, which has been the subject of two books, two documentaries and a podcast. Thirty-three would-be jurors were excused last week, some of whom admitted their bias.
Christina Marinakis, a consultant to IMS, a provider of expert and litigation advisory services, said prosecutors and Holmes attorneys likely combed potential jurors’ social media posts to find out their opinions about abuse because they “don’t usually like to talk about these things in open court.
Marinakis said jurors might be reluctant to admit a tendency to view an allegation of abuse as an “excuse” for Holmes’ conduct.
“They may fear being seen as misogynists,” she said.
Holmes was 18 when she met Balwani, who is 20 years older than her, and started living with him about three years later, according to “Bad Blood,” the Wall Street journalist’s best-selling book. John Carreyrou journal on the Theranos saga. The book chronicles the rise and fall of the Holmes business that began at the age of 19, concluding that she was a “manipulator” whose “moral compass was gravely crooked”.
Tracy Farrell, a jury consultant who has worked on sexual assault cases involving clergy, said Holmes lawyers may favor young jurors, especially women, who may question any attempts by prosecutors to show the abuse defense as “just another scam”.
“It creates a kind of dissonance for women,” Farrell said. “We want to believe them.”
Marc Agnifilo, a New York attorney, said Holmes’ case had parallels with that of Martin Shkreli, a former client convicted in 2017 of deceiving investors in his hedge funds.
Before his trial, Shkreli gained notoriety for raising the price of Daraprim, a drug that treats potentially fatal parasitic infections, by more than 4,000% in one day.
Shkreli “inspired this visceral negative reaction that was pretty hard to keep out of the jury,” Agnifilo said.
Holmes’ lawyers, he said, should seek “intelligent, open-minded jurors who are not just going to accept the government’s point of view on the facts.”