Ex-Theranos CEO Elizabeth Holmes takes the witness stand in her fraud trial

Nov 23, 2021
Originally published on November 24, 2021 7:09 am

Elizabeth Holmes told the jury in her criminal fraud trial on Tuesday that she personally put the letterhead of pharma giants Pfizer and Schering-Plough on documents sent to potential business partners and investors without the companies' consent.

It was the most damning admission Holmes has made under oath in three days of testifying in her own defense. The former CEO of the blood-testing company Theranos is attempting to persuade the jury that she is innocent of 11 counts of fraud and conspiracy to commit fraud.

Prosecutors have said Holmes forged multiple reports to give the impression that the pharmaceutical companies were endorsing Theranos devices, when in reality they had distanced themselves from the startup.

Holmes said she hadn't intended to deceive anyone but was merely attempting to acknowledge other work Theranos had done with the pharma companies.

Still, it was a mistake, she said.

"I wish I'd done it differently," said Holmes, speaking behind a plexiglass-enclosed witness box in a calm and confident tone.

For years, Holmes claimed Theranos had developed breakthrough blood-testing technology that would empower people to have more control over their health by allowing them to test for hundreds of conditions with a tiny finger prick of blood.

In 2014, the company was estimated to be worth $9 billion, more than the value of Uber and Spotify at the time.

But not long after, regulators and the media began asking probing questions about the efficacy of the technology, setting the company's demise in motion.

In 2017, federal prosecutors indicted Holmes and Ramesh "Sunny" Balwani, the No. 2 at the company.

Most of Holmes' testimony, so far, has involved deflecting responsibility, pointing to the expertise of the Theranos board of directors, lab staff and other company employees whom Holmes has suggested were close to how its blood analyzers worked. That made Holmes' admission that she placed the misleading letterhead on Theranos documents remarkable.

"This work was done in partnership with those companies, and I was trying to convey that," Holmes told the jury on Tuesday.

Holmes has yet to talk, on the stand, about the role of Balwani, who, in addition to being the former president of Theranos, is also Holmes' ex-boyfriend.

Balwani has been charged with wire fraud and will face a separate trial in January. Holmes' lawyers argued in legal filings before the trial began that Balwani physically and emotionally abused Holmes, altering her state of mind during the time of the alleged fraud. That controversial defense strategy has yet to be heard by the jury.

Passing the time with tarot cards and Elizabeth Holmes memorabilia

Holmes' much-anticipated testimony has created something of a scene outside the usually sleepy San Jose federal courthouse.

Journalists, spectators and others eager to hear Holmes have lined up in front of the courthouse as early as 2 a.m. this week to secure a spot inside the courtroom.

On Monday, one reporter did tarot card readings while awaiting the start of court.

A woman outside the courthouse on Tuesday appeared to be hawking Holmes-themed items, including black turtlenecks and blonde wigs. (As Theranos' CEO, Holmes was known to wear black turtlenecks, although she has forgone them for the trial.) When asked by courthouse security to stop the operation, the woman responded that the display was merely "performance art."

Some spectators at the trial of Elizabeth Holmes brought Holmes-themes items to the courthouse that were "for sale."
Bobby Allyn / NPR

It is not the strangest thing to happen during the Holmes trial.

During jury selection, a "concerned citizen" showed up to court purporting to be a neutral observer. He told journalists his name was Hanson and he was there to keep watch on how the media reported the case. He was, in fact, San Diego hotel magnate Bill Evans, the father of Elizabeth Holmes' partner Billy Evans.

From 'the next Steve Jobs' to criminal defendant

Since the trial began over 11 weeks ago, prosecutors have called more than two dozen witnesses to make the case that Holmes knowingly hoodwinked investors and patients about the capabilities of Theranos' blood-testing technology.

Witnesses have included former employees of Theranos, patients who received flawed or false test results and former high-profile backers of the company, including former U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis. He told jurors Holmes misled him into believing Theranos was on the cusp of developing tests that could help save lives on the battlefield.

"There became a point where I didn't know what to believe about Theranos any more," Mattis told the jury in September.

Holmes has pleaded not guilty to all counts. If the jury convicts her, the judge could sentence Holmes to lengthy time in federal prison.

The rise and fall of Holmes, once heralded as Silicon Valley's next Steve Jobs, has captured the national imagination. Her trajectory from wunderkind college dropout who developed "the iPod of healthcare" to disgraced defendant has been the subject of a bestselling book, a documentary and podcast series.

Her intensity and charisma made her a convincing saleswoman, raising more than $900 million for a company prosecutors say was destined to fail.

In the tech world and beyond, Holmes' case has renewed debate about the "fake it until you make it" culture of Silicon Valley and whether she has been treated more severely than other fallen tech leaders because of her gender.

Holmes has steadfastly maintained her innocence, with her legal team essentially arguing that prosecutors have tried to turn a business that went under into federal crime.

But government lawyers counter that Holmes knew what she was doing. Prosecutors contend that Holmes was intentionally deceptive about Theranos' finances and underlying technology in pursuit of landing on magazine covers and generating buzz and eye-popping investment.

Holmes' testimony will resume next week, when her direct examination from her defense team will resume. Following that, she will face cross-examination from federal prosecutors.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Lawyers say it is always risky when people accused of crimes testify in their own defense. Elizabeth Holmes is taking that risk. The founder of the blood testing company Theranos is accused of wire fraud and conspiracy connected to allegedly founding a successful tech company on lies, promoting blood testing that rarely worked. NPR's Bobby Allyn has been in the courthouse for the trial. Hey there, Bobby.

BOBBY ALLYN, BYLINE: Morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What are you learning as Elizabeth Holmes talks?

ALLYN: Yeah, so going into Holmes' testimony, prosecutors alleged that Theranos sent these forged documents to potential investors and business partners of Theranos, including retail chains like Walgreens. And these documents were reports supporting Theranos technology written on the letterhead of drug companies like Pfizer. Now, Steve, the big problem here is Pfizer wanted nothing to do with Theranos. Elizabeth Holmes said from the stand that she personally placed drug company logos, like Pfizer's logo, on these documents, and she said she did it to a knowledge past work Theranos did with Pfizer. And look; Theranos did have some small contracts with Pfizer, but they never consented to these letters.

INSKEEP: I'm trying to figure out why you would get up on the stand to testify to this. She's saying, I faked documents, in effect. How did she justify that?

ALLYN: Well, the prosecutors kind of got her here. So she did concede this, right? Holmes said, you know, she never intended to deceive anyone, and that's key here because prosecutors need to prove intent in order to convict. But she said, you know, she wishes she handled the whole thing a little differently. And I got to really underscore here that, you know, Holmes even admitting that is a really big deal because her core defense, this - since she's got on the stand was - it has been basically to point the finger at other people, medical experts on the board of directors, lab scientists, her deputy at Theranos. She's suggesting that everyone at the company except for her was responsible for the company's failures.

INSKEEP: Except that she faked the letterhead, she says in her own testimony. How does that revelation fit in with the broader prosecution story of what Holmes did?

ALLYN: Yeah, prosecutors say Holmes ran an operation full of deception, not just this letterhead. It goes far beyond that, according to prosecutors. And, you know, that basically this company was struggling, and she allegedly misrepresented the financials of the company. She misrepresented what these blood tests were capable of. You know, prosecutors played for a jury recordings of Holmes bragging about partnerships that never panned out. I mean, they even had former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis go on the stand and talk about how he thought Theranos was about to develop blood tests that could save lives on the battlefield. That never happened. Prosecutors say for years Elizabeth Holmes put on a charm, lots of charm. You know, she puffed up the company and made investors lose millions of dollars and provided faulty or just flat-out wrong tests to patients. Like, there was one woman who said that a Theranos test said she was having a miscarriage, Steve, when in fact she was really carrying a healthy baby.

INSKEEP: So what goes next in this trial?

ALLYN: Yeah, so the jury so far has only heard Holmes answer pretty easy questions from her own lawyer, but soon that is going to change because federal prosecutors will have their turn to pepper Holmes with much tougher questions. That could get dramatic. And, you know, whether her credibility survives that grilling, you know, that could have a big influence on how the jury feels going into deliberations over the fate of Holmes. Of course, she's at this trial because she's long maintained her innocence, but if she is convicted, she could face, you know, some pretty hefty prison time here.

INSKEEP: Now she's trying to tell her story. NPR's Bobby Allyn, thanks.

ALLYN: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.