Elizabeth Holmes jurors hear different takes on her downfall

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Elizabeth Holmes walks into federal court in San Jose, Calif., Monday, Nov. 22, 2021. Holmes is accused of duping elite financial backers, customers and patients into believing that her startup was about to revolutionize medicine. (AP Photo/Nic Coury)

SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) — Jurors in the case of former Theranos CEO Elizabeth Holmes on Thursday heard starkly different interpretations of her motives and actions as her long-running criminal trial nears the finish line.

A federal prosecutor cast Holmes as a desperate con artist who brazenly lied to get rich, while her lawyer depicted her as a well-meaning entrepreneur who never stopped trying to perfect Theranos’ blood-testing technology and deliver on her pledge to improve health care.

The closing arguments are the final act in a three-month-old trial revolving around allegations that Holmes duped investors, business partners and patients into believing that Theranos had invented a more humane, quicker and cheaper way to test blood. The case could be handed over to the jury Friday.

Prosecutor Jeff Schenk opened his closing argument by painting a sordid portrait of Holmes, once a Silicon Valley billionaire — on paper — now trying to avoid conviction on fraud charges that could result in a 20-year prison sentence.

As he methodically walked the jury through the testimony of the 29 witnesses called by the government, Schenk emphasized that Holmes had a critical choice to make on several occasions during her 15-year reign running Theranos. Holmes could have acknowledged troubling flaws in Theranos’ blood-testing technology, Schenk contended, but she covered them up instead as part of her pursuit of fame and fortune.

“She chose fraud over business failure,” Schenk told the jury at the outset of a three-hour presentation. “She chose to be dishonest. This choice was not only callous; it was criminal.”

Holmes’ lawyer, Kevin Downey, quickly countered that assertion when he got his turn to sway the jury.

“Elizabeth Holmes was building a business and not a criminal enterprise,” Downey said before trying to convince the jury that the federal government had presented a distorted snapshot of her dealings at Theranos.

Instead of relying on needles to draw vials of blood from a vein, Holmes spent years promising Theranos would be able to scan for hundreds of diseases and other health problems with just a few drops of blood taken with a finger prick.

It was such a compelling concept that Theranos raised more than $900 million, struck partnerships with major retailers Walgreens and Safeway and turned Elizabeth Holmes into the subject of cover stories on business magazines.

But unknown to most people outside Theranos, the company’s blood-testing technology was flawed, often producing inaccurate results that could have endangered the lives of patients who took the tests at Walgreens stores.

After the flaws were exposed in 2015 and 2016, Theranos eventually collapsed and the Justice Department filed a criminal case in 2018 that charged Holmes with 11 felony counts of fraud and conspiracy.

While Schenk made the case for conviction, Holmes peered at both the prosecutor and the jurors from across a packed courtroom in San Jose, California. Just a few feet behind her, Holmes’ mother and current partner, Billy Evans, sat in the front row listening intently, as did Holmes’ father, who hadn’t previously attended the trial in the presence of the jury.

Schenk occasionally played recordings of separate conversations Holmes had with a group of Theranos investors in December 2013 and with a Fortune magazine reporter in May 2014. In both recordings, Holmes makes a series of inaccurate and exaggerated comments about the capabilities of Theranos’ technology and purported contracts with the U.S. military that never materialized.

In other evidence displayed by Schenk, Holmes distorted the scope and prospects of partnerships that Theranos had allegedly struck with Walgreens and major drug makers such as Pfizer.

“You should find her guilty, but you shouldn’t find her guilty because of my words,” Schenk said. “You should find her guilty because of her words.”

In his presentation, Downey urged jurors to carefully pore through evidence that includes more than 900 exhibits to get a fuller picture and understanding of what she was trying to do. He pointed to contracts that Theranos had with several pharmaceutical companies that the government didn’t mention during its case as a example of the half-baked story that he said prosecutors presented.

The prosecution focused at a series of events at Theranos that “look bad, but at the end of the day when all the evidence flows together, isn’t that bad,” Downey said.

Downey also emphasized to the jury needed to be convinced “beyond a reasonable step” to declare Holmes guilty on any count. To illustrate the difficulty of that challenge, he displayed a graphic showing the seven steps that had to be scaled before reaching that threshold.

The verdict could hinge on how the jury reacts to seven days of testimony from Holmes in her own defense. During a particularly pivotal two hours on the stand, Holmes told the court she was raped while she was a freshman at Stanford University before dropping out in 2003 to found Theranos when she was 19.

Around the same time, Holmes testified, she became involved in a lengthy romance with a successful technology executive, Sunny Balwani, who eventually became Theranos’ chief operating officer while the couple were secretly living together. During that time, Holmes said, Balwani controlled everything from her diet to her friendships while subjecting her to mental, emotional and sexual abuse that she implied affected her judgment as Theranos’ CEO.

Balwani’s attorney has adamantly denied Holmes’ allegations, but the jury in her trial never heard from Balwani, who intended to invoke his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination had he been been called to testify. He faces a separate trial on similar fraud charges in February.

Schenk urged the jury to disregard Holmes’ abuse revelations as an irrelevant attempt to garner sympathy.

“If you return a guilty verdict, you are not saying you don’t believe her abuse allegations,” Schenk said.

The closing arguments are expected to wrap up Friday, setting stage for jury deliberations to finally begin.

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