Elizabeth Holmes Trial Nears Finish as Closing Arguments End
Even if Ms. Holmes, who founded the blood testing start-up Theranos, is acquitted, some executives may still tread more carefully in their optimistic pitches.,
SAN JOSE, Calif. — For more than three months, the defendant has donned a medical mask, clutched arms with her mother and entered the Robert F. Peckham Federal Building in San Jose, Calif., where executives, scientists and investors have accused her of fraud.
Soon a jury of strangers will decide on her guilt.
Lawyers on both sides of the trial of Elizabeth Holmes, the founder of the blood testing start-up Theranos, continued their closing arguments on Friday, inching the monthslong saga closer to a verdict.
In the courtroom on Friday morning, Kevin Downey, a lawyer for Ms. Holmes, stood behind a podium and spoke for several hours, attempting to discredit each of the government’s witnesses and raise doubt in jurors’ minds. As he flipped through slides with headings that included “All of this is accurate” and “Not every potential issue is an actual issue,” a few jurors scribbled notes.
Ms. Holmes faces 11 charges of wire fraud and conspiracy to commit wire fraud for claims she made to investors and patients about Theranos’s technology and business dealings. She has pleaded not guilty. If convicted, she faces up to 20 years in prison.
The trial, which has alternated between media spectacle and business school cautionary tale, has come to represent a moment of truth in Silicon Valley, where executives have rarely faced consequences for their inflated claims. If Ms. Holmes is found guilty, prosecutors could begin to more aggressively dig into the wildly optimistic tales of rocket ship growth at more start-ups.
Even if she is acquitted, some executives may still tread more carefully in their optimistic pitches. Start-ups have been riding a wave of investor exuberance for nearly a decade, despite repeated warnings of bubble-like behavior that could lead to more disasters like Theranos.
“I would suspect that C.E.O.s of similar companies will be more careful when they talk,” said Andrey Spektor, a lawyer at Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner and a former federal prosecutor in New York’s Eastern District. He said recordings of Ms. Holmes pitching her company to investors and on TV were among the most incriminating evidence in the case.
Prosecutors used dozens of witnesses and hundreds of documents to argue that Ms. Holmes, 37, knowingly lied to investors about Theranos. She said the company had military contracts when it did not, that its technology was “comprehensively validated” by pharmaceutical companies when it had not been, and that its machines could do hundreds of tests when it could only do a dozen.
On Thursday, Jeff Schenk, an assistant U.S. attorney and one of the lead prosecutor, summarized the government’s case simply: When Theranos was almost out of money, Ms. Holmes could have let it fail. But she chose to defraud investors instead, he said.
“That choice was not only callous, it was criminal,” Mr. Schenk said.
Ms. Holmes’s lawyers countered with a range of responses: She had been told by her colleagues that the technology worked, she hid information to protect trade secrets, she was being controlled by her much-older boyfriend, who was also her business partner, and the broader narrative was more complicated than the prosecution made it seem.
“The government is showing an event that looks bad, but at the end of the day, when all the evidence flows together, it isn’t so bad,” said Mr. Downey. He showed slides illustrating the steep burden of the government to prove “beyond reasonable doubt” that Ms. Holmes had knowingly lied to get money.
Ms. Holmes’s defense primarily relied on her own testimony, which lasted seven days and upended the narrative of the case. It was the first time that Ms. Holmes had told her version of the events leading to Theranos’s collapse, which has been widely documented in podcasts, books, documentaries and news reports.
On the stand, Ms. Holmes painted herself as a hardworking and ambitious entrepreneur who believed in her company’s technology and potential. Any exaggerations or misleading statements were merely her projecting grand plans for the future, she implied.
She further said Ramesh “Sunny” Balwani, her longtime boyfriend and business partner, had berated her and controlled every aspect of her life. She also accused him of sexual abuse, which he has denied. Their relationship had been kept a secret at the time.
But in court, every aspect of the relationship — text messages, emails, conversations, infidelities and the limited liability company through which they owned a home — were picked apart. Prosecutors dug in to try to show the pair conspired to commit fraud. Ms. Holmes’s lawyers tried to show she was a victim.
It is rare for defendants in white-collar criminal trials to take the stand, and it is even rarer for them to introduce testimony of abuse. Ms. Holmes’s lawyers were expected to call an expert witness to tie her claims of intimate partner abuse to the alleged fraud, but they did not.
On Thursday, Mr. Schenk asked the jury not to dwell on the abuse accusations. “The case is about false statements made to investors and false statements made to patients,” he said. “You do not need to question whether that abuse happened.”
Ms. Holmes’s testimony added to the spectacle of the trial, drawing large crowds of onlookers who often waited more than five hours outside the courtroom for one of its limited seats. One man yelled that Ms. Holmes was a “girl boss” as she entered the building, and a trio of attendees pretended to sell black turtlenecks — Ms. Holmes’s business uniform during Theranos’s rise — as part of a performance art piece.