The trial of Elizabeth Holmes, founder of the blood testing startup Theranos, began in a California courthouse on Tuesday, marking the latest chapter in a saga that has captured the attention of millions and prompted a reckoning with the Silicon Valley hype machine.
Holmes, 37, is charged with six counts of fraud relating to her now-defunct medical startup, which once claimed its technology would revolutionize the medical industry by performing a range of tests with just a small sample, such as from a finger prick. The claims were later revealed to be largely fabricated.
Jury selection, the first phase of the trial, began on Tuesday morning at a courthouse in San Jose with dozens of prospective jurors crowding into the small federal courtroom, wearing masks and social distancing. Holmes, dressed in a black suit, faced a wall of media cameras as she arrived.
The trial has been described as a “bellwether case” that will see Holmes, once the world’s youngest self-made billionaire, face a reckoning after her dramatic downfall. Theranos had reached a valuation of $10bn before reports from the Wall Street Journal and others revealed it was overstating the functions of its core technologies.
The US Department of Justice accused Holmes and her former boyfriend and co-president Ramesh “Sunny” Balwani of defrauding consumers who purchased and used the tests and investors who were convinced it would become profitable.
Holmes is expected to use a defense alleging that she was influenced to commit fraud by Balwani, whom she has described as “abusive”. Balwani has denied the accusations and is facing his own trial in February 2022.
The founder sat silently in court on Tuesday, flanked by her legal team. She was wearing a blue surgical mask, despite having stated she would “strongly prefer” not to wear one. It is not yet known if she will testify, though experts have suggested it is likely she will do so to attest to the abuse claims she is expected to lean on in her defense.
The court reserved just two rows for press to cover the trial, leaving the more than 100 members of the media who have flocked to the event vying for a dozen seats. Remaining reporters and other viewers were able to watch proceedings from a spillover room.
Experts have said it may take longer than usual to find jurors in a case that has been highly publicized and is slated to take many weeks to be resolved. Dozens of potential jurors were cut before the proceedings began after they said in pretrial questionnaires they had seen media coverage of Theranos.
Remaining potential jurors were repeatedly asked on Tuesday about whether they had consumed any information about the case in advance. Many of them were indeed familiar with the company, saying they had watched documentaries, read books, or listened to podcasts on the subject.
One potential juror said the only aspect of Theranos that he was familiar with was the founder’s “penchant for turtlenecks” – Holmes is known for the Steve Jobs-inspired fashion. Another said she had listened to a podcast about the company’s rise and fall on a road trip with her husband.
Another potential juror was dismissed after he said he worked at a news radio station where he is surrounded by Theranos news.
Those who were not dismissed outright were asked if they could set aside their knowledge of the case to judge Holmes fairly.
Judge Edward Davila, who is overseeing the trial, recommended jurors turn off news notifications on their devices for the remainder of the trial and to make an effort not to take in any additional media.
In addition to publicity concerns, jurors were asked about whether they had personal experience with intimate partner violence that would bias them in judging such matters.
According to pretrial filings, jurors can expect to hear from doctors who used the tests on their patients and from patients misled by Theranos results. Those include a woman whose test results falsely signaled a miscarriage despite a healthy pregnancy, a man whose test falsely indicated he had prostate cancer, and two others who received false positive HIV test results.
However, lawyers for Holmes petitioned to have the scope of patient testimony severely limited, saying such anecdotes are not a statistically representative sample from the millions of tests Theranos conducted. While they are allowed to share that they were misled by the tests, patients will be barred from sharing the emotional impact of getting those false results.
The court has set aside time into December for proceedings. Holmes has pleaded not guilty to all counts of wire fraud and conspiracy to commit wire fraud. If convicted, she faces up to 20 years in prison.