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Elizabeth Holmes found guilty on four counts of fraud

Holmes, who had once promised to revolutionise health care, was the most prominent executive to field fraud accusations in a generation of high-flying, money-losing startups

By Erin Woo and Erin Griffith
Published: Jan 4, 2022

Elizabeth Holmes found guilty on four counts of fraudElizabeth Holmes outside court as the jury continues deliberation in her fraud trial in San Jose, Calif., on Monday, Jan. 3, 2022. Holmes, the founder of the failed blood testing start-up Theranos, now awaits sentencing after being found guilty of four of 11 charges of fraud on Monday. (Jim Wilson/The New York Times)

SAN JOSE, Calif. — Elizabeth Holmes, founder of the failed blood testing startup Theranos, was found guilty of four of 11 charges of fraud Monday, in a case that came to symbolize the pitfalls of Silicon Valley’s culture of hustle, hype and greed.

Holmes, who had once promised to revolutionize health care, was the most prominent executive to field fraud accusations in a generation of high-flying, money-losing startups. A jury of eight men and four women took 50 hours over seven days of deliberations to reach a verdict, convicting her of three counts of wire fraud and one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud by lying to investors to raise money for her company.

Holmes was found not guilty on four other counts related to defrauding patients who had used Theranos’ blood tests. The jury was unable to reach a verdict on three counts of deceiving investors, for which Judge Edward Davila of California’s Northern District said he planned to declare a mistrial.

Each count carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison, terms that are likely to be served concurrently. Holmes, 37, is expected to appeal. A sentencing date is expected to be set at a hearing on the three hung charges next week.

While the verdict was read, Holmes — who had falsely claimed that Theranos’ blood tests could detect a variety of ailments with just a few drops of blood — sat motionless. Then she gathered her belongings and whispered to her lawyer. She went down the row of family and friends in the court gallery behind her, hugging each one before leaving through a side door.

“It’s been a long case,” Davila told the jury. “We collectively have been through many things.”

Stephanie Hinds, a U.S. attorney, said in a statement that the guilty verdicts reflected Holmes’ “culpability in this large-scale investor fraud.”

The verdict stands out for its rarity. Few technology executives are charged with fraud and even fewer are convicted. If sentenced to prison, Holmes would be the most notable female executive to serve time since Martha Stewart did in 2004 after lying to investigators about a stock sale. And Theranos, which dissolved in 2018, is likely to stand as a warning to other Silicon Valley startups that stretch the truth to score funding and business deals.

The mixed verdict suggested that jurors believed the evidence presented by prosecutors that showed Holmes lied to investors about Theranos’ technology in the pursuit of money and fame. They were not swayed by her defense of blaming others for Theranos’ problems and accusing her co-conspirator, Ramesh Balwani, the company’s chief operating officer and her former boyfriend, of abusing her. They were also not swayed by the prosecutor’s case that she had defrauded patients.

On Monday, jurors told the court that they were deadlocked on three of the charges of defrauding investors. Davila pushed them to continue deliberating, but they were unable to agree.

The verdict arrived in a frenzied period for the tech industry, with investors fighting to get into hot deals and often ignoring potential red flags about the companies they were putting money into. Some have warned that more Theranos-like disasters loom.

Holmes’ conviction sends a message to other founders and executives to be careful about their statements to investors and the public, said Jessica Roth, a law professor at Cardozo School of Law and former federal prosecutor in the Southern District of New York.

It “shines a light on the importance of drawing a distinction between truth and optimistic projections — and keeping that clear in one's mind,” she said.

Holmes rose to prominence by mimicking the disruptive change-the-world chutzpah of Silicon Valley heroes such as Steve Jobs — a playbook that has turned companies such as Apple, Tesla, Google and Facebook into some of the most valuable in the world.

In the process, she captured the attention of heads of state, top business leaders and wealthy families with idealistic plans to revolutionize the health care industry. She traveled the world on private jets, was feted with awards and glowing magazine cover stories, and was lauded as the world’s youngest self-made female billionaire.

The verdict concludes nearly four months of proceedings that alternated between exhilarating and plodding. There were delays because of a coronavirus scare, a burst water pipeline, technology problems in the courtroom and juror travel. One juror was dismissed for playing Sudoku and another for her Buddhist faith. Crowds of spectators — many of whom followed the Theranos saga via podcasts, documentaries, books and news articles — waited for hours for a spot in the courtroom’s limited seats.

Inside, jurors heard from dozens of witnesses and viewed hundreds of pieces of evidence used in support of prosecutors’ argument that Holmes knowingly misled investors and patients on her rise to fame and fortune.

Before it shut down in 2018, Theranos voided two years’ worth of its blood tests. It paid to settle several investor lawsuits, as well as fraud charges by the Securities and Exchange Commission.

But prosecutors argued that Holmes’s actions went beyond those punishments — they were criminal. She led investors to lose hundreds of millions of dollars and patients to get unreliable test results, they said.

“At so many of the forks in the road, she chose the dishonest path,” John Bostic, an assistant U.S. attorney, said in closing arguments.

In her defense, Holmes’ lawyers tried to discredit testimony from whistleblowers, attacked investors for not doing more research into Theranos and said Holmes’ failures were not a crime.

Holmes capped the proceedings by taking the stand. Over seven days of testimony, she alternated between accepting responsibility for certain missteps and deflecting blame for other problems to colleagues.

©2019 New York Times News Service