Elizabeth Holmes, the founder of failed blood testing startup Theranos who was convicted of fraud earlier this year, is scheduled to be sentenced on Friday morning by a judge in court in San Jose, California.
Holmes, who was found guilty in January on four charges of defrauding investors, faces up to 20 years in prison as well as a fine of $250,000 plus restitution for each count.
Lawyers for the government asked for a 15-year prison term, as well as probation and restitution, while Holmes’ probation officer pushed for a nine-year term. Holmes’ defense team asked Judge Edward Davila, who is presiding over her case, to sentence her to up to 18 months of incarceration followed by probation and community service.
More than 100 people wrote letters in support of Holmes to Davila, asking for leniency in her sentencing. The list includes Holmes’ partner, Billy Evans, many members of Holmes’ and Evans’ families, early Theranos investor Tim Draper, and Sen. Cory Booker. Booker described meeting her at a dinner years before she was charged and bonding over the fact that they were both vegans with nothing to eat but a bag of almonds, which they shared.
“I still believe that she holds onto the hope that she can make contributions to the lives of others, and that she can, despite mistakes, make the world a better place,” Booker wrote, noting that he continues to consider her a friend.
Friday’s sentencing hearing caps off Holmes’ stunning downfall. Once hailed as a tech industry icon for her company’s promises to test for a range of conditions with just a few drops of blood, she is now the rare tech founder to be convicted and face prison time for her company’s missteps.
Holmes, now 38, started Theranos in 2003 at the age of 19 and soon thereafter dropped out of Stanford University to pursue the company full-time. After a decade under the radar, Holmes began courting the press with claims that Theranos had invented technology that could accurately and reliably test for a range of conditions using just a few drops of blood taken from a finger prick.
Theranos raised $945 million from an impressive list of investors, including media mogul Rupert Murdoch, Oracle founder Larry Ellison, Walmart’s Walton family and the billionaire family of former Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. At its peak, Theranos was valued at $9 billion, making Holmes a billionaire on paper. She was lauded on magazine covers, frequently wearing a signature black turtleneck that invited comparisons to late Apple CEO Steve Jobs. (She has not worn that look in the courtroom.)
The company began to unravel after a Wall Street Journal investigation in 2015 found the company had only ever performed roughly a dozen of the hundreds of tests it offered using its proprietary blood testing device, and with questionable accuracy. Instead, Theranos was relying on third-party manufactured devices from traditional blood testing companies.
In 2016, Theranos voided two years of blood test results. In 2018, Holmes and Theranos settled “massive fraud” charges with the Securities and Exchange Commission, but did not admit to or deny any of the allegations as part of the deal. Theranos dissolved soon after.
In her trial, Holmes alleged she was in the midst of a decade-long abusive relationship with her then-boyfriend and Theranos COO Ramesh “Sunny” Balwani while running the company. Balwani, she alleged, tried to control nearly every aspect of her life, including disciplining her eating, her voice and her image, and isolating her from others. (Balwani’s attorneys denied her claims.)
In July, Balwani was found guilty on all 12 charges in a separate trial and faces the same potential maximum prison time as her. Balwani is scheduled to be sentenced on December 7.
“The effects of Holmes and Balwani’s fraudulent conduct were far-reaching and severe,” federal prosecutors wrote in a November court filing regarding Holmes’ sentencing. “Dozens of investors lost over $700 million and numerous patients received unreliable or wholly inaccurate medical information from Theranos’ flawed tests, placing those patients’ health at serious risk.”
Holmes’ sentencing, however, could be complicated by developments in her life after stepping down from Theranos. Holmes and her partner, Evans, who met in 2017, have a young son. Holmes is also pregnant, as confirmed by recent court filings and her most recent court appearance in mid October.
Mark MacDougall, a white-collar defense lawyer and former federal prosecutor, told CNN Business that the fact that Holmes has a young child could impact how she is sentenced.
“I don’t know how it can’t, just because judges are human,” he said.
MacDougall also said he doesn’t see what a long prison sentence accomplishes. “Elizabeth Holmes is never going to run a big company again,” he said. “She’s never going to be in a position to have something like this happen again.”