What I saw at the Theranos trial: long lines, superfans and the enduring power of Elizabeth Holmes

The trial of Elizabeth Holmes has seen plenty of courtroom drama, but outside the courthouse in San Jose, 加利福尼亚, a spectacle of another sort has unfolded week after week.

On landmark days – such as opening arguments, testimony from star witnesses and when Holmes made the risky decision to take the stand herself – journalists, true crime fans and other spectators have turned out early to battle for limited seats inside the courthouse.

For reporters like me, who have been covering the trial for several months, that’s often meant turning up before dawn for a good spot in line. Fellow members of the media and myself have laughed, cried and eaten countless lukewarm breakfast sandwiches from Starbucks (哪一个, mercifully, opens at 5am) in the chilly darkness.

In earlier days of the trial, most onlookers could show up as late as 9am when the trial began and still be seated. But as the proceedings intensified, securing one of the approximately 80 spots has required lining up as early as 2am on the sidewalk. Later in the trial, rumors emerged that a handful of people showing up were line holders hired from apps like TaskRabbit.

Some bring folding chairs, others huddle under the awnings of the building, waiting for security employees to open the court house gates at 7am. Journalists are often seen making group coffee runs and filing stories by the dawn’s early light. In addition to the press, there are self-described “looky-loos”, true crime fanatics and retired lawyers following the case.

Holmes often enters the building around 8am – typically wearing business casual dress and matching mask and flanked on either side by her mother, Noel Holmes and partner, Billy Evans.

The trial has seen its fair share of stunts and other antics: one person showed up with a sign reading “Holmes Balwani not guilty on all charges,” referencing Sunny Balwani, the co-president of Theranos whose own trial is set for 2022. A gaggle of blonde women dressed like Holmes attended several days in support of the founder. 另一天, an artist sold costumes out of a suitcase in line for the trial outdoors before being asked to leave as it is prohibited to “sell merch” on federal property.

The spectacle has been a testament to Holmes’s enduring appeal as a cautionary Silicon Valley tale, one that’s been chronicled in a book, multiple documentaries and an upcoming film.

The founder has been charged with defrauding investors and patients with her technology, which she said could perform hundreds of tests with just one drop of blood – claims that were later found to be largely untrue.

Before the cracks in Theranos began to show, Holmes was a Silicon Valley darling – a rare female founder in a male-dominated field, raising millions of dollars from big-name investors like media mogul Rupert Murdoch and former US secretary of state George Schultz. Known for her signature black turtleneck wardrobe and husky voice, Holmes spoke on panels and television and graced the covers of major magazines like Fortune and Forbes.

Closing arguments took place on Friday, with the government re-stating its case that Holmes knowingly defrauded investors and patients, lying about the value of the company and the capabilities of its technology. As the jury goes into deliberation, Holmes’s team requested they be instructed not to let her “celebrity” status influence their decisions.

Despite this request, Holmes’s celebrity has been inescapable throughout the trial. It will always be an integral part of the story of Theranos – a company whose mythos outpaced its actual capabilities and whose founder created a cult following that obscured her shortcomings.

From jury selection, during which it seemed nearly impossible to find a single juror who had not at least heard of Theranos, to the final days of press chaos outside the court house, Holmes remains one of the most-watched women in Silicon Valley.

Holmes, for her part, seems as calm and collected as ever, stoically walking into the court house each morning. And aside from small contritions, such as acknowledging “I wish we had done things differently”, she has never apologized.

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