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Home Tech Inside the Courtroom With Theranos’s Elizabeth Holmes

Inside the Courtroom With Theranos’s Elizabeth Holmes

SAN JOSE, Calif. — Three days a week, Adriana Kratzmann, an administrator, opens the door at 8:30 a.m. to Courtroom 4 of the Robert F. Peckham Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse.

Journalists and spectators present her with numbered paper tickets that they get from security guards at the building entrance. Once Ms. Kratzmann checks their tickets, they stream into the beige-walled room, jostling for a place on five long wooden benches and a single, prized row of cushioned chairs.

Then from a door on the east side of the windowless room, Elizabeth Holmes walks in.

Only a select few have made it inside the San Jose courtroom where Ms. Holmes, the disgraced founder of the failed blood-testing start-up Theranos, is being tried on 12 counts of fraud, charged with misleading investors about her company’s technology. Just 34 seats are open for the public, and when those are filled, spectators are directed to an overflow room one floor down, where around 50 people squeeze in to watch the trial on large monitors.

The matters being discussed at the trial are substantial. The fate of the 37-year-old Ms. Holmes — one of the most infamous entrepreneurs of her generation — is on the line in a case that has come to symbolize Silicon Valley’s hubris. Media coverage has been plentiful.

But what the public can’t see are the dozens of small interactions that happen behind the courthouse’s closed doors: Ms. Holmes whispering through her mask to her lawyers; the jury of eight men and four women scribbling notes in large white binders; the packs of lawyers whizzing past reporters who camp out on the hallway’s carpeted floors during breaks, charging their laptops. That hallway often goes quiet when Ms. Holmes, who has a special quiet room but uses the same elevator, bathroom and entry as everyone else, walks by.

To the affable security guards and other courtroom veterans, it’s no different from any other day at work. Courtroom 4 has seen its share of trials since the Robert F. Peckham Building, later named after a federal judge, was completed in 1984.

“There’s nothing really remarkable about it,” said Vicki Behringer, 61, one of two court artists in the room, who has sketched trials in Northern California for 31 years.

Six weeks in, Ms. Holmes’s trial has settled into a rhythm. As members of the public take their seats in the fifth-floor courtroom, lawyers for the prosecution and defense come in from the same door as Ms. Holmes. They confer among themselves and set binders down on wooden tables. Ringing the courtroom are framed vintage-style posters from the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy.

Then the crowd stands as Judge Edward J. Davila of U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California enters. He presides from an elevated bench, separated from everybody by a pandemic-era clear divider.

Before the jury comes in, lawyers for each side spar over what evidence can be presented and what questions can be asked. Judge Davila, soft-spoken and calm, leans back in his seat as he considers each request. He has sometimes blocked lines of questioning to prevent unrelated “mini-trials” from dragging out the already lengthy trial.

With this out of the way, the jurors file in from a door at the head of the courtroom. They sit on the left side in two rows of padded leather seats and one overflow wooden bench. Already, two jurors have been dismissed, including one who said her Buddhist faith made her uncomfortable with the idea of punishing Ms. Holmes. Three alternates remain.

Then testimony starts. Witnesses sit at the front of the room behind a clear divider. Often, they have veered into technical jargon about the problems that plagued Theranos’s blood testing machines. Words like “immunoassays” and initials like H.C.G. (a hormone test) are bandied about as casually as slang.

Email threads, entered as evidence, also flash on monitors that have been set up on both sides of the courtroom. One reporter brought binoculars to read the tiny highlighted text.

The mood during testimony is, oddly, sleepy. “A lot of it is very technically detailed and diagnostically detailed,” said Anne Kopf-Sill, 62, a retired biotechnology executive who has come to the trial nearly every day out of personal interest. “I cannot imagine the jury is getting very much out of this.”

To produce her ink-and-watercolor sketches, Ms. Behringer, the court artist, looks for striking visual details, she said, like the thick binders of exhibits and expressive hand gestures from Ms. Holmes’s main lawyer, Lance Wade.

Jane Sinense, 66, the other court artist, said she — like everyone — was looking to Ms. Holmes.

“She’s so hard to read because there’s nothing there,” Ms. Sinense said, adding that Ms. Holmes is easy to draw because she barely moves. “She never gives a clue.”

Ms. Holmes, who is always at the front with at least three lawyers, has traded her signature black turtleneck for more traditional business clothing: a short blazer over a solid-colored dress, or a blouse and a skirt with a medical mask to match.

Directly behind her, in a gallery row reserved for the defense, are family members. Her mother, Noel Holmes, who often walks into the courtroom holding her daughter’s hand, is a constant companion. Elizabeth Holmes’s partner, Billy Evans, joins some days as well.

The family largely keeps to itself. Ms. Behringer, who sits next to the family in court, said that Noel Holmes seemed “very nice and quiet” and that Mr. Evans was “congenial,” but noted: “We’re not having conversations.”

Noel Holmes and Mr. Evans declined to comment. Ms. Holmes’s law firm did not respond to a request for comment.

The interest in Ms. Holmes has drawn many spectators, though not all of them have found the events as exciting as they hoped.

“I get bogged down in the science of it,” said Mike Silva, 70, a retired paralegal who lives in San Jose and has attended each day with a friend. They have a routine of catching the same train and sitting in the same courtroom seats, he said.

Beth Seibert, 63, who owns a record storage business in Los Altos, Calif., said she had shown up recently after choosing “Bad Blood,” a book about Theranos by the journalist John Carreyrou, for her book club.

“I guess I’m kind of a junkie,” she said, adding that she has also listened to podcasts about the case.

But when a former Theranos lab director was grilled on alternative assessment protocols, Ms. Siebert said the trial had “not quite” lived up to her expectations.

“They’re really getting into the minutiae,” she said.

That minutia may last for at least eight more weeks. To get through witnesses more expeditiously, Judge Davila has prolonged the trial’s hours until 3 p.m. instead of 2. At the end of each day, he reminds jurors not to discuss the trial and to ignore the media coverage.

As the crowd files out, the security guards offer up small talk and a promise: “See you tomorrow!”

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