Opening statements in the criminal trial of Ramesh “Sunny” Balwani for his role in the now-defunct blood-testing company Theranos were slated to start Tuesday but were delayed when jurors claimed that serving in the protracted trial would cause them hardship.
Balwani, president and chief operating officer of Theranos and the ex-lover of convicted Theranos founder and CEO Elizabeth Holmes, faces the same 12 counts of criminal wire fraud and conspiracy against investors, doctors and patients that were brought against Holmes.
Earlier this year, a jury convicted Holmes of four of those counts and acquitted her of four others. The jury was unable to reach a verdict on three counts, which the court dismissed. The government withdrew the 12th charge.
Holmes remains free on bond pending her sentencing in the fall.
Jury selection for the Balwani trial began March 2. By Friday, March 11, a panel of 12 jurors and six alternates had been selected.
But on Monday this week, several members of that panel told U.S. District Judge Edward Davila that serving on a jury for a trial estimated to last 13 weeks would be too onerous, citing work, financial and childcare problems, as well as lengthy commutes to the San Jose courtroom.
Davila then dismissed eight of the 18 members of the panel for individual hardships, including one worried about family in Ukraine.
Juror issues continued to plague the court and counsel on Tuesday morning, as another of the previously selected jurors sent an email to the court clerk belatedly claiming a work hardship. The judge later excused her, leaving nine empty spots.
After a new group of potential jurors — the third so far — was summoned on Tuesday to fill in the gaps, one called in to report a childcare problem and another just didn’t show up.
Please excuse me
When voir dire — the judge’s and lawyers’ questioning of the new group — finally got underway late Tuesday morning, potential jurors recited a litany of work and childcare obligations that they said would make it difficult to serve. One added that her dog suffered from separation anxiety. Another said that he believes that the criminal justice system is not impartial.
When a local veterinarian outlined her extensive duties as the county’s sole animal doctor, including spaying baby kittens as “kitten season” begins and caring for dozens of sick baby goats, a clearly moved Davila urged people to volunteer to help her out.
He later dismissed the veterinarian from the panel.
When asked whether they had heard about the case, 17 of the 19 new potential jurors reported that they had read news stories about Holmes and Theranos, watched the recent Hulu series “The Dropout,” and/or seen the 2019 HBO documentary about Theranos’ downfall.
Panel members’ answers varied as to whether, in light of their news exposure, they could be fair and impartial to both sides, with most asking to speak to the judge privately.
One later told the judge that he had read about Holmes’ charges that Balwani abused her and about the verdict in her trial. As a result, the juror said, he believed that Balwani would have to prove his innocence, rather than the government carrying its usual burden to prove guilt.
Davila dismissed the juror for cause.
The panel, the audience and Balwani himself spent most of the afternoon waiting while the judge and lawyers conducted closed-session questioning of individual jurors.
By the end of the day, a jury of six men and six women, along with six alternates, had been sworn in to hear the case.
Davila had been expected to give the jury preliminary instructions Wednesday, but those plans also were put on hold when the judge abruptly canceled the day’s proceedings due to a second-hand COVID-19 exposure. By Friday morning, Davila is expected to decide whether the case can go forward this week, or whether it would be more prudent to push it all back until next Tuesday.