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A day at Elizabeth Holmes’s trial

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Peeking over her shoulder, I watch as a scene sprouts from the colored pencils she brought in a leather roll. The sketch artist uses a circle stencil to compose the United States seal, black staccato strokes for the judge’s peppery hair and olive green for Elizabeth Holmes’s mask. She perfectly captures what the San Jose courtroom looks like on Tuesday, Oct. 26 at 8:30 a.m. Facing allegations of knowingly misleading doctors, patients and investors about her company’s blood testing, defendant Elizabeth Holmes is pleading not guilty on a dozen federal fraud charges and is facing up to 20 years in prison.

Theranos, the biotechnology company Holmes started after dropping out of Stanford, claimed to be able to perform accurate blood tests from a single pinprick of blood rather than the standard tubes required.  The company was once valued at $9 billion, making Holmes the world’s youngest self-made female billionaire. But the whole thing was a fraud. The technology didn’t work.

I learned this story from a 2019 ABC News podcast called “The Dropout,” which chronicles Holmes’s story. In the blur of the pandemic, her case faded from my mind until, after multiple delays, the trial began on Aug. 31 in San Jose. As a sophomore at Stanford, I had to take advantage of the opportunity to see, in person, a portion of the trial happening only 30 minutes away. I texted my most willing adventure buddy, Piper Holland ’25, and we set our alarms for a 6:15 a.m. departure to San Jose. 

On a chilly October morning, we wear borrowed blazers, our business heels clicking up the stone steps. By 7:00 a.m., there are a handful of older people gathering outside the courtroom. I talk to the other people in line, including Jessie Deeter, who produced HBO’s documentary on Holmes, and Sara O’Brien, who is covering the trial for CNN. O’Brien tells me that this is the first trial she has covered, having formally been acquainted with the Theranos story while covering technology. The crowd is made up of young reporters and older couples, apparently with time on their hands and a passion for white-collar crimes. We line up to go through the airport-esque security checkpoint, after which we are handed our paper tickets and directed to the elevator. Jurors adorned with blue lanyards are whisked to the front of the line. Then, we elevator upstairs, wait a bit more and finally shuffle into the wooden pews. The reporters take to the back row of the left side, clacking away at the keyboards on their laptops.

A man holding a yellow legal pad, whom I will call Brown Corduroy Jacket, stands up from his seat in front of them. “I’m seeing a lot of keyboards. It’s a risky move. You’re going to get us thrown out,” he spits, as he crosses to a bench on the other side of the room. The millennial-aged reporters make eyes at each other and return to discussing who just got back from New York, and who is going there next. It’s as if they’re coworkers at a water fountain, not overseeing a federal trial that could put a woman behind bars for two decades. All of the characters are here — the bailiff, the attorneys, the martial — and are almost entirely white men. Bleached blonde older women line the row behind the defense, clearly the family. Then we rise for the judge.

It unravels like a movie scene. The attorneys present their cases, and their arguments remind me of two little boys bickering to their father. It’s less formal than expected too. When the defense wants to bring a 90-minute video to the jury, the judge comments that it seemed rather dense.

“It’s actually quite exciting,” replies the lawyer.

“What did you do over the weekend?” quips the judge.

“Well … the Giants …” the attorney has no apparent banter left. I wonder if the lawyers actually like the judge or if they have to kiss up to him for approval. I wonder if the defense thinks they have a chance with the case, or if they’re just trying to minimize the damages.

The court is office-like and has bright fluorescent lights. One of the middle-aged men who is watching the trial with his apparent spouse turns around with a note on his phone for O’Brien, my CNN reporter friend sitting next to me. “Others have been called out by the judge for keyboard sounds like yours,” it reads. He shakes his head as he turns back around. Her fingers freeze above the keys, thinking, stunned. Then she types again, but softly.

Piper leans over and asks me if I think Elizabeth Holmes will be there today. I realize that the blonde female lawyer on the defense side is not a lawyer after all. She sits straight up, in a black blazer, wearing an olive skirt and mask. Her neck swivels, birdlike. The judge warmly greets the jury and makes sure that they didn’t learn anything about the trial over the weekend. He proposes schedule changes, and one of the jurors speaks up.

“It’s getting really hard to miss work. The scheduling … it’s really difficult.” Jurors are paid $50 in the California District Courts. Today, the jurors were at the courthouse from 9 am to 4 pm, coming to $7.14 an hour, almost half of California’s $14 minimum wage.

The witness is brought in. Brown hair, in her late 40s, glasses, chic grey jacket. Lisa Peterson is an investor for the DeVos family office and had recommended to the financial board that they invest in Theranos. “Do you see Elizabeth Holmes in this courtroom?,” the lawyer asks.

“Yes.”

“Where?”

Peterson points a slim finger in Holmes’s direction. Holmes appears unfazed. Her testimony reveals that the family was planning on contributing $50 million, but after an enticing visit to Theranos’s headquarters, they doubled their investment. They were made to feel lucky to be chosen for the opportunity — Holmes wanted to keep Theranos private, with few investors, who would be okay with a delayed payoff. The questions continue for upwards of an hour. Peterson seems slightly annoyed by the repetition of the questions, starting many of her answers with, “like I said ….” At 11 a.m., the judge pauses the trial for a 30-minute break. In the bathroom, I brush arms with Holmes’s mother. What would it be like, I wonder, to have your daughter, who at one point must have made you so proud, be in her 8th week of a federal trial? Does this woman actually believe her daughter is innocent? Does Elizabeth herself believe she is innocent?

At this point, Piper and I have to head back to campus to make it in time for our afternoon classes. We leave excited; there were powerful people in that room. People who wrote stories and people who did things worth writing stories about. I gained a lot from a morning in a courthouse, seeing my country’s justice system unfold in front of me. It humanized Holmes. The idea of her, her ambition, her follow-through, her lack of morals — all too big to comprehend. But seeing her, sitting at that table, with second-day curls and highlights that desperately needed to be redone, reminded me that whomever we make someone out to be, and no matter how big their aura becomes, everyone is still human. Everyone can be taken down.

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Annie Reller'24 is interested in French and American Studies and grew up in Bellevue, Washington. In her free time, she enjoys eating tikka masala from farmers' markets and reading on trains.