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Elizabeth Holmes drawn as villain, underdog as trial begins

Lawyers painted opposing views of the disgraced Theranos founder, who faces up to 20 years in prison if convicted on felony charges.

PALO ALTO, Calif. — Prosecutors and defense attorneys sketched dueling portraits of fallen Silicon Valley star Elizabeth Holmes as her trial got underway Wednesday, alternatively portraying her as a greedy villain who faked her way to the top and a passionate underdog whose spent years trying to shake up the health care industry. 

 The two sides are now expected to spend the next three months trying to sway a 12-person jury impaneled to hearing the evidence in a case airing allegations that Holmes used her startup, Theranos, as a scheme to realize her dreams of becoming rich and as famous as one of her role models, late Apple co-founder Steve Jobs.

Once hailed as a billionaire on paper, Holmes is now facing a sentence of up to 20 years if convicted of the felony charges.

Credit: AP
Elizabeth Holmes walks into the federal courthouse for her trial in San Jose, Calif., Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2021. Holmes is accused of duping elite financial backers, customers and patients into believing that her startup was about to revolutionize medicine. If convicted by a jury in San Jose, California, she could be sentenced to 20 years in prison.(AP Photo/Nic Coury)

Holmes' rise and fall has already been the subject of documentaries, books and podcasts, feeding the fervor that has built up around a trial that has been delayed twice since she was indicted nearly three years ago. With roughly only 75 spots available for the media and general public to observe the proceedings, people began to line up outside the San Jose, California, courthouse before 5 a.m. Wednesday.

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After the jury was seated and U.S. District Judge Edward Davila gave his preliminary instructions, federal prosecutor Robert Leach wasted little time vilifying Holmes.

He cast Holmes in a dark light, depicting her as a conniving entrepreneur who duped investors, customers and patients for years, even though she knew her startup, Theranos, was nearly bankrupt and its much-hyped blood-testing technology was a flop.

 “This case is about fraud, about lying and cheating to get money,” Leach said during his roughly 45-minute opening statement.

Credit: AP
FILE - In this Nov. 2, 2015 file photo, Elizabeth Holmes, founder and CEO of Theranos, speaks at the Fortune Global Forum in San Francisco. Holmes will go on trial next summer to face criminal fraud charges for allegedly defrauding investors, doctors and the public as the head of the once-heralded blood-testing startup Theranos. U.S. District Court Judge Edward Davila ruled Friday, June 28, 2019 that the trial against Holmes and her former Chief Operating Officer Ramesh Balwani will start July 28, 2020.(AP Photo/Jeff Chiu, File)

He said the evidence would show that Theranos was already in deep trouble as far back as 2009, about six years after Holmes founded the Palo Alto, California, company. At that point, Leach said, Holmes resorted to a pattern of lying and hyperbole in an effort to fool major media outlets, wealthy investors such as media mogul Rupert Murdoch, well-connected Theranos board members such as former U.S. Secretaries of State George Shultz and Henry Kissinger, and customers such as Walgreens.

Some of the most damning evidence may be presented by a former top finance officer at Theranos who will testify that the company only had $650,000 in revenue from 2011 through 2014, according to Leach. Yet Holmes was telling investors and other people that Theranos would generate $140 million in revenue in 2014, Leach said.

 Holmes is also accused or promising that Theranos would be able to quickly test small vials of blood in a small company-designed machine named after the famed inventor Thomas Edison. Leach said the samples were actually sent out to outside parties for testing using standard-issue.

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