Disgraced Theranos CEO Elizabeth Holmes is casting herself as a Silicon Valley scapegoat who overcame an abusive relationship to become a loving mother in an effort to avoid a lengthy prison sentence for duping investors in her failed blood-testing company.
In an 82-page document filed late Thursday, Holmes' lawyers tried to persuade U.S. District Judge Edward Davila that sending Holmes to prison is unnecessary, partly because she has already been stigmatized by intense media coverage that has turned her into a “caricature to be mocked and vilified."
If Davila decides she send her to prison, Holmes' lawyers argued she should be sentenced to no more than 18 months — a fraction of the maximum of 20 years she is facing after being convicted on four felony counts of investor fraud and conspiracy earlier this year.
“We acknowledge that this may seem a tall order given the public perception of this case—especially when Ms. Holmes is viewed as the caricature, not the person," the filing said.
Prosecutors are expected to seek a much harsher sentence when they file their own sentencing recommendations ahead of Holmes' scheduled Nov. 18 sentencing. Holmes, 38, will learn her fate in the same San Jose California, courtroom where her high-profile trial cast a glaring spotlight on Silicon Valley's penchant for hype and hubris.
After starting Theranos as a 19-year-old, Holmes proceeded to raise nearly $1 billion from investors swayed by what turned out to be bogus promises.
Holmes became lionized as a visionary while touting a compact device that was supposed to be able to scan for hundreds of diseases and other potential health problems with a few drops of blood taken with a finger prick. Theranos' tests instead produced wildly unreliable results, flaws that Holmes tried to conceal until the problems were exposed in the media and regulatory audits.
Although Holmes' convictions were limited to about $140 million of the investments in Theranos, legal experts say the magnitude of just those losses make it unlikely that her push for a relatively short prison sentence or home confinement will succeed.
Two former federal prosecutors, Duncan Levin and Amanda Kramer, told The Associated Press Holmes seems likely to get a sentence of nine years to 17 years, although both acknowledged Davila has the discretion to be more lenient.
“There is an argument to be made, particularly in white collar cases, that you don’t need a very long prison sentence to deter people who never have been in prison," Kramer said.
Holmes' lawyer repeatedly hammered on that point in the memo to Davila. “Ms. Holmes is no danger to the public," the filing asserted. “She has no criminal history, has a perfect pretrial services compliance record, and is described by the people who know her repeatedly as a gentle and loving person who tries to do the right thing."
The filing also cited her motherhood to a 1-year-old son she had with her current partner, William “Billy" Evans, shortly before the start of last year's trial. Former Theranos lab director Adam Rosendorff, a key prosecution witness in that trial, said he understood that Holmes is currently pregnant when he was summoned back to court last month for further sworn testimony in Holmes' failed bid for a new trial.
Neither Holmes nor Evans responded when asked if she was pregnant again after that Oct. 17 hearing, and pregnancy wasn't mentioned in the sentencing memo.
Evans was among more than 130 people who submitted letters to Davila extolling Holmes' character. One came from Sen. Cory Booker, a Democrat from New Jersey, who described her as a friend who “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."
In their memo, Holmes' lawyers also pointed out some of her past trauma, echoing Holmes' testimony about being raped while she was still a student at Stanford. After that, Holmes testified she endured years of emotional and sexual abuse that affected her decision-making while in a romantic relationship with Ramesh “Sunny" Balwani, who was also Theranos' chief operating officer.
Balwani, 57, was convicted on 12 felony counts of investor and patient fraud in July during separate trial. He is scheduled to be sentenced Dec. 7. His lawyers have denied Holmes' abuse accusations.
The documents also asserted that Holmes was unfairly singled out by a federal government looking to crack down on Silicon Valley excesses, suggesting part of the reason may have been because she became a successful woman in a technology industry that has been dominated by men. Although she once was worth $4.5 billion based on the value of her stake in privately held Theranos, the lawyers stressed she never sold any shares in the company and now has few future prospects.
“Ms. Holmes will never be able to seek another job or meet a new friend without the negative caricature acting as a barrier,” the filing said.