Jury selection starts in Theranos founder's fraud trial

Lawyers for Elizabeth Holmes, founder of Theranos Inc., complained that years of "inflammatory" publicity will make it hard to find unbiased jurors. — Bloomberg

Fallen biotech star Elizabeth Holmes was in court Tuesday as jury selection began for her fraud trial in a case that rocked Silicon Valley.

Dressed in her trademark black clothing and wearing a blue mask due to the pandemic, the founder of the former high-flying startup Theranos took in the proceedings from a seat at the defense table in the federal courtroom in San Jose.

Holmes was a startup celebrity whose multibillion dollar start-up looked set to revolutionise medical testing before it crashed and burned in a blaze of fraud claims.

She and former Theranos chief operating officer Ramesh "Sunny" Balwani, whom she dated for a time, are charged with conspiring to swindle Theranos investors and customers.

Holmes and Balwani are having separate trials, and recently disclosed documents indicate she plans to contend in court that she was abused and controlled by her former business partner.

Holmes faces nine charges of wire fraud and two of conspiracy to commit wire fraud that could see her jailed for up to 20 years.

"The charges are only allegations, not evidence," US district court judge Edward Davila told prospective jurors, noting that prosecutors would need to present evidence to support the charges.

Davila expected to go through scores of people over the course of a day or two before seating the 12 who will be entrusted to decide Holmes's fate.

The court will also pick alternate jurors who will act as backup members of the panel if needed during a trial likely to last at least 13 weeks.

Defense attorney Kevin Downey was keen to ferret out jury candidates who may have seen news coverage of Holmes or Theranos.

When she launched the diagnostics company Theranos in 2003, at the age of just 19, the charismatic Holmes promised results that were faster and cheaper than traditional laboratories, running an analytical gamut on just a few drops of blood.

Political figures like Henry Kissinger and James Mattis were drawn to the company's board and media mogul Rupert Murdoch invested cash in what seemed to be a sure-fire winner.

Holmes was lauded as a visionary, drawing comparisons with Apple founder Steve Jobs.

But years of hype, and billions of dollars later, those promises unspooled; the miracle machines did not work.

And, say prosecutors, Holmes knew it, yet continued to lie to investors, doctors and patients so she could raise more than US$700mil (RM2.9bil) for the company.

At one point she had a net worth estimated at US$3.6bil (RM14.92bil), according to Forbes magazine. At the time she was the youngest billionaire not to have inherited her fortune. – AFP

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