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Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Theranos verdict: five key moments from the trial that shook Silicon Valley | Theranos

Elizabeth Holmes, the founder of blood testing company Theranos, was found guilty of four charges of fraud on Monday, ending a closely followed saga that could have major implications for the tech world.

Over the course of several months, federal prosecutors laid out a case to the jury that Holmes knowingly scammed investors and patients, artificially inflating the value of Theranos and lying about the capabilities of its technology.

The trial has been nearly as spectacular as the rapid rise and fall of the company, which at its height was hailed as a game changer and attracted hundreds of millions in investment. Here are five key moments to remember in the case that shook Silicon Valley.

four people in formal wear holding hands
Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes arrives to attend her fraud trial at federal court in San Jose, California. Photograph: Peter Dasilva/Reuters

High-profile investors takes the stand

Holmes managed to woo billionaire investors and assemble a board of directors comprising former US cabinet members spanning from the Nixon to Trump administrations.

While most of these early Theranos players did not appear in court, one did make an appearance: James Mattis was called to testify by the prosecution in the early days of the proceedings. He stated he personally invested $85,000 in the company, finding the technology “pretty breathtaking” but lost faith after the Wall Street Journal reporting.

“There came a point where I didn’t know what to believe about Theranos any more,” he said.

Former employees speak out

The prosecution paraded a number of former Theranos employees as witnesses during the trial, including three different lab directors.

Former Theranos lab director Kingshuk Das testified that Holmes seemed reluctant to acknowledge any criticisms of the Theranos technology, giving “implausible” excuses for apparent failures in the company’s tests.

“I found these instruments to be unsuitable for clinical use,” he said of the company’s proprietary Edison devices.

Other lab directors Lynette Sawyer and Sunil Dhawan said the job required “minimal” in person work and that they spent the majority of their time doing paperwork, not testing the actual hardware used in blood analysis.

More key testimony came from Erika Cheung, a former Theranos employee, who took the stand for three days to detail shortcomings of the company’s blood testing processes. She said she was very concerned about the accuracy of the technology and occasionally refused to run patient samples on the devices.

Patients “don’t know the fact that behind closed doors we’re having all these problems and they think they’re getting correct results”, Cheung said. “It was starting to get very, very uncomfortable and very stressful for me working at the company.”

Holmes defends herself, alleges abuse

Perhaps the most shocking moment in the trial came when Holmes herself was called to the stand by her defense team to testify.

The risky move allowed her to make her own case to the jury, potentially garnering more sympathy ahead of deliberations. But it also opened her to cross examination from the prosecution, during which attorneys grilled her for several days about inconsistencies in her story.

court drawing of a woman wearing a mask and a man in a grey suit
Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes becomes emotional as she is asked to read romantic texts between herself and ex-boyfriend Sunny Balwani. Photograph: Vicki Behringer/Reuters

Holmes claimed on the stand that she trusted statements from her scientists that Theranos technology was working as planned and that she did not purposely mislead anyone. She also laid out bombshell allegations that her former business partner and lover, Sunny Balwani, abused her, influencing her to commit fraud.

The two met when Balwani was 38 years old and Holmes was only 18. She said Balwani wanted her to “kill the old Elizabeth”, controlling what she ate and who she spent time with so that she could become a successful CEO.

“He had taught me everything I thought I knew about business and he was the best business person that I knew,” Holmes said. “I didn’t question him in the way that I otherwise would have.”

The ‘smoking gun’: pharmaceutical logos

One integral piece of evidence prosecutors frequently returned to was that Holmes doctored documents sent to potential investors.

Walgreens CFO Wade Miquelon said during his testimony that Holmes had implied the pharmaceutical firms Pfizer and Schering-Plough had validated the company’s blood-testing technology.

He said Holmes shared with investors and potential partners a document carrying the Pfizer logo, purportedly showing the drug company’s support. But the document had been forged, the prosecution claims.

“Pfizer did not write this,” prosecutor Robert Leach said in opening arguments for the trial. “Pfizer did not put its logo on this. Pfizer did not give its permission to put its logo on this. Pfizer did not make the conclusions in this report.”

In her testimony, Holmes admitted to personally manipulating those documents, saying she did so not to imply that the companies had vetted the technology but “because this work was done in partnership with those companies and I was trying to convey that”.

“I wish I had done it differently,” Holmes told jurors.

people waiting in line
Spectators and media members wait in line for hours for a chance to see Elizabeth Holmes outside the courthouse. Photograph: John G Mabanglo/EPA

Evidence offers window into Holmes’s life

Submitted into evidence, amid the thousands of pages of dense laboratory tests and scientific data, were a handful of documents that offered a window into Holmes’s mindset as she stood at the helm of one of Silicon Valley’s buzziest companies.

“I do everything I say – word for word. I am never a minute late. I show no excitement,” one strict handwritten note to herself said. She obsessively tracked her food, drinking a daily green juice and avoiding sugar.

“ALL ABOUT BUSINESS.”

“I am not impulsive.”

“I do not react.”

“I am always proactive.”

“I know the outcome of every encounter.”

“I do not hesitate.”

“I speak rarely. When I do – CRISP and CONCISE. I call bullshit immediately. My hands are always in my pockets or gesturing,” the note read.

Also in evidence were hundreds of pages of text messages between Holmes and Balwani, many amorous and others business-like. In some they referenced a bird they owned together. Also in evidence: an aerial photo of a home they owned together in Atherton.

“You are the breeze in desert [sic] for me – my water, and ocean,” she texted Balwani in May 2015, according to a recent court filing. “OK,” he replied.

The two frequently used the phrase “hmfr” which Holmes said references an Arabic phrase that translates roughly to “this too is my God’s glory”. In her journals and texts with Balwani, Holmes referenced a spiritual connection and a belief that God put Balwani in her life for a higher purpose.

“Love you,” one message from Balwani reads. “I prayed from the bottom of my heart for you. I have never prayed with this intensity in my life for anything.”

“I love this,” Holmes replied. “My nirvana.”

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