Healthcare & Pharmaceuticals

Judge vets potential Theranos jurors, as COVID-19 looms over start of Holmes trial

4 minute read

SAN JOSE, Calif., Aug 31 (Reuters) - As Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes' highly anticipated fraud trial began on Tuesday, the judge overseeing the case quizzed potential jurors about whether they could be fair considering the intense media coverage about the entrepreneur, who has long been a subject of fascination in Silicon Valley.

Dozens of prospective jurors crowded into a small federal courtroom in San Jose, California, wearing masks and sitting one seat apart to protect against COVID-19.

Holmes, 37, has pleaded not guilty to defrauding Theranos investors and patients by falsely claiming that the now-defunct blood testing company had developed technology to run a wide range of tests on a single drop of blood.

The meteoric rise and spectacular fall of Theranos turned Holmes from a young billionaire into a defendant who could face years in prison if convicted.

When asked on Tuesday if they had been exposed to media coverage of the case, more than a third of the potential jurors raised their hands. At least one had read "Bad Blood," Wall Street Journal reporter John Carreyrou's best-selling book about the Theranos saga.

The book chronicles the emergence of the company Holmes started at age 19, concluding that she was a "manipulator" whose "moral compass was badly askew."

Jury pool members who were questioned about that exposure in court largely said it would not affect their ability to be impartial, though several were excused.

Known for dressing in a Steve Jobs-style black turtleneck, a masked Holmes wore a black suit in court on Tuesday.

The pandemic loomed over the proceedings, with U.S. District Judge Edward Davila assuring jurors about the quality of air filtration in the courtroom.

Davila excused nine jurors who had not been vaccinated against COVID-19, saying jury service would be a hardship for them.

ALLEGATIONS OF ABUSE

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Former Theranos CEO Elizabeth Holmes leaves after a hearing at a federal court in San Jose, California, July 17, U.S., 2019. REUTERS/Stephen Lam/File Photo

The trial is expected to last several months, and Holmes' lawyers have said she may make the unusual move of taking the stand in her own defense, opening herself up to cross-examination by prosecutors.

Court papers submitted more than 18 months ago and unsealed late on Friday revealed that Holmes had accused former Theranos COO Ramesh "Sunny" Balwani of psychological and sexual abuse.

Holmes' lawyers said her "deference" to Balwani led her to believe allegedly false statements about parts of Theranos that he controlled, including a claim about a partnership with drugstore chain Walgreens (WBA.O).

Holmes was 18 years old when she met Balwani, who is 20 years her senior, and started living with him around three years later, according to Carreyrou's book.

Balwani denied allegations of abuse in a 2019 court filing. He is scheduled to be tried separately on fraud charges.

Lawyers for Holmes and Balwani did not return requests for comment on Monday.

When asked by the judge on Tuesday whether they or someone they knew had experienced domestic violence, five potential jurors raised their hands. One juror said her ex-husband had been abusive toward her.

Another, who was dismissed, said his wife was a victim of domestic abuse in a prior relationship. "Emotionally she is very scarred from it," he said, responding to questions from the judge. "I feel bad for her because it's something she can't shake."

No jurors raised their hand when asked if they knew anyone they thought had been falsely accused of abuse.

Christina Marinakis, a jury consultant with litigation consultant IMS, said both sides have likely combed through potential jurors' social media posts for their views about abuse.

Marinakis said jurors may be reluctant to admit to a tendency to view a claim of abuse as an "excuse" for Holmes' conduct, she added. "They may fear they are going to be looked at as misogynists," she said.

Jury selection is scheduled to continue on Wednesday morning, with opening arguments next Tuesday.

Reporting by Jody Godoy in San Jose, Calif. Additional reporting by Nathan Layne in Wilton, Connecticut, and Brendan Pierson in New York Editing by Leslie Adler, Noeleen Walder, Matthew Lewis and Peter Henderson

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