Court documents show Holmes’ defense strategy includes accusing ex-boyfriend and former COO Balwani of ‘intimate partner abuse’ that impacted her ‘state of mind’
It has started! The long-awaited criminal trial of former Theranos CEO Elizabeth Holmes is underway in a federal courthouse in Silicon Valley. Across the profession of medical laboratory medicine, there is keen interest in the story of Holmes and her now-defunct clinical laboratory company Theranos.
This next chapter in the drama began on September 8 with opening arguments. Federal prosecutors came out strong, claiming Holmes was “a manipulative fraudster who duped investors and patients alike and knew the whole time that she was hoodwinking them,” according to NPR.
“This is a case about fraud, about lying, and cheating to get money,” said Assistant US Attorney Robert Leach, NPR reported. “It’s a crime on Main Street, and it’s a crime in Silicon Valley,” he added.
Not surprisingly, Holmes’ defense team had a different take, claiming Holmes was simply “a hardworking, young startup executive who believed in the mission of the company, only to see it buckle in the face of business obstacles,” NPR reported. “They argued that she placed blind faith in the No. 2 executive at the company [Balwani] and overly trusted lab directors, who the defense team says were legally responsible for how the labs were run.”
Holmes Claims Abuse at the Hands of Former Theranos COO Balwani
Many pathologists and clinical laboratory managers are ready to watch and learn what unfolds in the opening stages of Holmes’ long-delayed federal criminal fraud trial. During the jury selection process, recently unsealed court documents showed that Holmes’ defense planned to include claims she was abused by her then boyfriend, Theranos Chief Operating Officer Ramesh Balwani.
This surprising development adds yet another twist to the tale of the disgraced Silicon Valley executive and her defunct clinical laboratory testing company.
The hype surrounding the once-high flying startup, which in 2015 reached a peak valuation of $9 billion, began unraveling that same year when a Wall Street Journal (WSJ) investigation exposed the company’s alleged deceptions and questionable practices related to its finger-prick blood-testing technology.
Fast-forward six years—Theranos is now gone but its top executive continues to make headlines, not as a laboratory science wunderkind, but as a criminal defendant.
Holmes, 37, has pleaded not guilty to all charges. Her former consort and ex-Theranos COO Ramesh Balwani also pleaded not guilty to all charges. He will be tried separately from Holmes.
Dozens of Potential Jurors Removed for Alleged Bias
On August 31, in-person questioning of prospective jurors began in Holmes’ federal fraud trial in San Jose, California. The process did not go well. As CNBC reported, dozens of potential jurors were removed from the jury pool due to potential bias in the case.
“Thirty to forty of the remaining jurors have consumed substantial, and I mean lengthy extrajudicial material, about the case and about the defendant,” defense attorney Kevin Downey, JD of Washington, D.C.-based Williams and Connolly, LLP, told Judge Edward Davila, CNBC reported. “We’re very vulnerable to any of the jurors commenting in some ways as either the court or lawyers conduct voir dire about the content of the media they’ve seen.”
Voir dire is the legal term for preliminary examinations of jurors, which in this initial screening was done by reviewing potential juror questionnaires.
Holmes’ defense attorneys, according to CNBC, previously expressed concerns about “inflammatory” media coverage of the case. However, Assistant US Attorney Jeffrey Schenk maintained, “Less than half of the individuals that filled out the questionnaire had prior exposure to Holmes and Balwani. One juror saying something during the voir dire process that could be overheard is a risk in every court case,” CNBC reported.
Holmes Claims ‘Mental Condition Bearing on Guilt’
A report by the Independent notes that newly unsealed court documents which were first reported by NPR reveal that Holmes will mount a defense that includes claims of “intimate partner abuse” by Balwani, 56, during their past relationship.
“The documents show that Ms. Holmes will describe how Mr. Balwani controlled what she ate and drank, how she dressed, and who she spoke to, while also alleging he threw ‘sharp’ objects at her,” the Independent reported.
NPR reported that court documents indicate Holmes is likely to take the stand and testify at her trial. She will not be presenting an insanity defense but will put forth a “defense of a mental condition bearing on guilt” that was the result of partner abuse and that impacted her “state of mind” at the time of the alleged crimes.
Court documents filed by Balwani’s defense attorneys label Holmes’ allegations as “salacious and inflammatory.”
“In truth, Ms. Holmes’ allegations are deeply offensive to Mr. Balwani, devastating personally to him and highly and unfairly prejudicial to his defense of this case,” defense attorney Jeffrey Coopersmith, JD, Principle and founder of Coopersmith Law and Strategy, wrote in the filing.
The Theranos Saga Continues …
In “Former Theranos CEO Elizabeth Holmes Is Pregnant, Causing a Further Delay in Her Trial Date,” Dark Daily reported that Holmes’ trial had been delayed multiple times since she was first was indicted on 11 counts of wire fraud and conspiracy to commit wire fraud in 2018. The COVID-19 pandemic, and more recently Holmes’ pregnancy, delayed the start of her trial until August.
Balwani’s criminal fraud trial is scheduled to begin with jury selection on January 11, 2022. Both Holmes and Balwani face maximum penalties of 20 years in jail and a nearly $3 million fine, plus possible restitution if found guilty on all counts.
It is a rare thing for owners of a clinical laboratory company accused of fraud to come to trial and receive so much media attention. In the weeks leading up to the trial, medical laboratory managers and pathologists could read a wide variety of news stories about the impending trial and the legal strategies expected by the attorneys for both the plaintiffs and the defendants.
Thus, everyone interested in this trial and its outcome will likely have the equivalent of a front row seat because so many journalists are covering this trial.
—Andrea Downing Peck