Theranos’ Holmes files appeal seeking to overturn ‘unjust’ conviction, ‘excessive’ sentence (updated)

With the clock ticking down on her freedom, the Holmes defense appeals. Elizabeth Holmes’ last-ditch appeal was filed on Monday in the Ninth Circuit US Court of Appeals. The defense filing claims that her conviction was ‘unjust’ and should be thrown out on multiple grounds, based on prosecutorial misrepresentations and actions by Judge Edward Davila in the presentation of evidence.

  • Holmes did not falsely represent the Theranos blood lab technology to investors–that ‘highly credentialed Theranos scientists told Holmes in real time the technology worked’ and that ‘Outsiders who reviewed the technology said that it worked’.

What the jury heard was that the company’s lab machines could only perform a few tests and even in those, had significant accuracy problems. Yet Holmes claimed in her testimony that the labs could perform multiple tests with high accuracy. She admitted falsifying documents with pharmaceutical company logos (Merck/Schering-Plough, Pfizer) on internal reports to add credence to these claims, which was documented in other testimony, notably from a former Schering-Plough employee. 

  • Judge Davila ‘flouted the Federal Rules of Evidence’ by allowing certain testimony to be heard and excluding other testimony, such as from Sunny Balwani during his pre-trial testimony that he was responsible for the fraudulent financial projections.

The appeal claims that the jury heard testimony from a supposed layman who was actually an expert witness, a federal regulator’s report on Theranos that was ‘unfairly prejudicial’ (CMS closing the lab in July 2016?), and that Theranos voided test results from its labs [see TTA 19 May 2016], confusing the jury in that it was an admission that the Theranos Edison labs didn’t work. Excluding Balwani’s testimony on the Theranos financials and projections given to investors was labeled abuse of judicial discretion.

“These errors—together with the exclusion of prior testimony from Holmes’ co-defendant taking sole responsibility for the company’s financial model—produced an unjust conviction,” the appeal reads.

The problem with this part of the appeal is that all these ‘misrepresentations’ were factual. Holmes as CEO was well acquainted with both the faulty labs and the financials. With that CEO title comes a sign that The Buck Stops Here.  

Plan B–the ‘excessive’ prison sentence. If the appeals court does not throw out the conviction, the appeal turns to over-sentencing. Returning to Judge Davila, he used the wrong legal standard about the number of victims and the amount of investor losses, using a “preponderance of evidence” standard instead of “clear and convincing”. The sentence was also excessive for a woman whom “unlike other white-collar defendants–neither sought nor gained any profit from the purported loss and was trying to improve patient health.” To this Editor’s recollection, Judge Davila bent over nearly backward to exclude from the trial the prosecutorial desire to highlight Holmes’ fame and high flying lifestyle, including expenses for air, hotel, and clothing.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals will need to get eye prescriptions updated, since there are 10,000 pages of trial transcripts and 16,000 pages from other court records to review. This review may take months, a year–or more–and has only a small chance of success. Mercury News (may be paywalled)    Updated. The full appellant filing of 132 pages is located here.

To this Editor, who is not a lawyer nor plays one on TV, the effort to throw out the conviction is absurd. The prosecution piled high the fraud evidence to support each count. It was not difficult as there were a lot of investors. In the run-up to the trials, Judge Davila was meticulous and even-handed with both prosecution and defense. He was conservative in all aspects, from conduct during the trial to preventing over-aggressiveness by both sides in witness questioning to reining in the ‘Sunny as Svengali’ defense tack. Aside from this trial (but outside the appeal), there are other Theranos fraud cases at the Federal and state levels where awards were made to plaintiffs when the company still had money (see below; also Walgreens settled, see our Ch. 44). The appeals court might seriously consider the sentence issues. On the face of it, she was convicted of but four counts versus Balwani’s 12, yet is receiving very nearly the same length of sentence; however, these four counts were the heaviest (Ch. 16).  Though Judge Davila strictly considered the Federal sentencing guidelines and steered a middle course of 11.25 years between the 15 years (of 20 maximum) recommended by the prosecution and the nine years recommended by the probation officers, to be served concurrently, the appeals court may see an error, somewhere around losses–but it is unlikely, and even if there are errors, they may make no difference.

But to this Editor, one testimony says it all about the fraud. It was from Brian Grossman, then and now chief investment officer and CIO of PFM Health Sciences, a San Francisco firm that manages billions in public and private funds for early-stage healthcare investment. It is particularly damning. The firm invested $96 million based on the projections, the claims that it was a miniaturized lab capable of replacing thousands of feet of lab space into a box (the ‘steak’), of four-hour turnaround on lab results in retail, one hour in hospitals, and that a Stanford researcher of some prestige vetted it. From our article:

While Balwani nixed Grossman speaking with Walgreens and UnitedHealth, Channing Robertson of Stanford, who helped Holmes start Theranos, vetted their labs as extremely advanced technology–one with which competitors would spend years catching up–for a serious investor, sauce, potato, vegetables, and trimmings on that sizzling steak.

Unlike the picture the defense is painting of Balwani controlling Holmes, Grossman took care to note that Holmes, not Balwani, did most of the talking at the time. While he found the company highly secretive, he, unfortunately, discounted it. So in went PFM’s $96 million in February 2014, which included $2.2 million from a designated ‘friends and family fund’ which had investments from low-income people.

Three years later, PFM also won its own fraud case against Theranos, settling its lawsuit for about half–an estimated $40-50 million….The timing was good–it was while the company still had some money to claw back. 

Holmes is scheduled to surrender herself to the US Bureau of Prisons (BOP) on 27 April, less than two weeks from now. She will not be able to remain free while this appeal is pending, unless the defense files with the Ninth Circuit Court for a delay (expected) and the court agrees to stay the surrender for some time. A similar appeal was denied for Sunny Balwani, who surrendered on 20 April, a month later than his original date, to Terminal Island and will be held there indefinitely. Another major issue for the Balwani defense and being appealed is his assignment to the scandal-plagued Atlanta Federal Penitentiary. Judge Davila recommended that Holmes serve her sentence at Bryan, Texas, but the BOP has not confirmed that.

Still pending are the restitutions to be made by both Holmes and Balwani, separately, neither of whom have the $381 million (Judge Davila’s calculation for Holmes) or the $878 million that the prosecution has tallied. TTA 22 March

This Editor would like to give a hat tip with flourishes and trumpets to the moderator of the r/Theranos Reddit sub forum, mattshwink, and poster OldSchoolCSci, for clarification on many legal points of my analysis.  

Categories: Latest News and Opinion.


  1. Of course Holmes would file an appeal. She wouldn’t give up 11 years without a fight. But she may be denied like Balwani was. What a fate, from Stanford to this…

  2. Donna Cusano

    Agreed. These grounds were predictable as similar ones were filed earlier with Judge Davila’s court. Holmes is running out of runway and looking at the lights and the trees. In reviewing our coverage of the company, the failure, and her trial, during the failure phase Holmes lost several law firms including Boies Schiller (David Boies on the board!) and Cooley over non-payment of bills. I’m amazed that she hasn’t run out of money to pay this set of lawyers.