Start of ex-Theranos president and COO Sunny Balwani’s federal trial will be pushed to mid-March due to COVID-19 spike in California
Just when most clinical laboratory managers and pathologists thought the guilty verdict in the Elizabeth Holmes fraud case would bring an end to the saga, we learn her chapter in the Theranos story will instead extend another eight months to September when the former Silicon Valley CEO will be sentenced. However, a brand-new chapter will begin in March when the fraud trial of ex-Theranos president and COO Ramesh “Sunny” Balwani begins.
Holmes’ fraud trial concluded on January 3 with the jury convicting her on one count of conspiracy to defraud investors and three counts of wire fraud after seven days of deliberation and nearly four months of trial proceedings.
Holmes remains free on a $500,000 bond while awaiting sentencing.
“I would be utterly shocked if she wasn’t sentenced to some term of imprisonment,” Amanda Kramer, JD, a former federal prosecutor who is now a partner with New York-based Covington & Burling LLP, told NPR.
“What is the sentence that will deter others who have a failing business from making the choice to commit fraud, rather than owning up to the failings and losing their dream?” she added.
Holmes, 37, faces a possible prison sentence of 20 years in prison as well as a $250,000 fine and possible restitution. But some legal experts expect a much shorter prison sentence for the disgraced CEO, who has no prior criminal history and is a first-time mother of a son born last July.
While sentencing typically takes place within a few months of a verdict being reached in a federal criminal trial, US District Judge Edward Davila set 1:30 p.m. September 26, 2022, as the date for Holmes’ sentencing hearing, according to his order dated January 12.
The Mercury News reported the lengthy delay in sentencing may be due to the start of Balwani’s upcoming trial on identical fraud charges. The delay in Holmes’ sentencing will allow for Balwani’s trial to begin in mid-March after being pushed back one month due to a spike in COVID-19 cases in California, The Mercury News reported.
Judge Davila will preside over Balwani’s trial as well.
Jury Acquits Holmes on Patient-related Charges
Holmes was acquitted of conspiracy to defraud patients of the now-defunct blood-testing laboratory and the jury failed to reach a unanimous decision on three other wire fraud charges.
University of Michigan Law Professor Barbara McQuade, a former US Attorney and an NBC News Legal Analyst, told CNBC she expects prosecutors to rethink their strategy in the Balwani trial based on the jury’s acquittal of Holmes on conspiracy and fraud charges involving Theranos patients.
“Knowing that this jury acquitted on all of the patient counts, I think that strategically, they should look to find a more direct way to explain why that is part of the fraud, that they necessarily knew that ultimately patients would be defrauded. And that although they didn’t know these individual patients by name, they knew that they existed in concept,” McQuade said.
One of the jurors in the Holmes’ trial, Wayne Kaatz, told ABC News he and other jurors were dismayed by their inability to come to a unanimous consensus on the three of the charges. A mistrial was declared on those three counts.
“We were very saddened,” Kaatz said. “We thought we had failed.”
Did Holmes Charm the Jury?
When Holmes dropped out of Stanford at age 19 to form Theranos, her goal, she claimed during testimony, was to transform healthcare by creating a blood-testing device capable of performing hundreds of clinical laboratory tests using a finger-stick of blood. She became a Silicon Valley sensation because of her charisma and charm, which she used to sell her dream to big money investors such as Oracle co-founder Larry Ellison and former US Secretary of State George Shultz.
Kaatz acknowledged Holmes’ personality also impacted the jury.
“It’s tough to convict somebody, especially somebody so likable, with such a positive dream,” Kaatz explained to ABC News, noting, however, that he voted guilty on the three counts on which the jury could not agree. “[We] respected Elizabeth’s belief in her technology, in her dream. [We thought], ‘She still believes in it, and we still believe she believes in it.’”
In the light of Holmes’ conviction, McQuade suggested it would not be shocking to see Balwani consider a plea deal in exchange for a lighter sentence.
“Could we perhaps, enter a guilty plea and get a reduction for acceptance of responsibility?” she said. “It’s certainly something that you have to look at.”
And so, the saga continues. Clinical laboratory directors and pathologists who followed Holmes’ trial with rapt interest should prepare for a new set of twists and turns as Ramesh Balwani prepares to face his own day in court.
—Andrea Downing Peck