Elizabeth Holmes, founder and former CEO of Theranos, arrives for motion hearing on Monday, Nov. 4, 2019, at the U.S. District Court House inside Robert F. Peckham Federal Building in San Jose, California.
Yichuan Cao | NurPhoto | Getty Images
In a bombshell revelation just days before her criminal fraud trial, defense attorneys for Elizabeth Holmes claim she’s suffered a “decade-long campaign of psychological abuse” from her former boyfriend and business partner Ramesh “Sunny” Balwani.
“Balwani’s control included monitoring her calls, text messages, and emails; physical violence, such as throwing hard, sharp objects at her, restricting her sleep, monitoring her movements; and insisting that any success she achieved was because of him,” defense attorneys for former Theranos CEO Holmes wrote.
The revelation is contained in documents unsealed early Saturday morning by U.S. District Judge Edward Davila. Holmes met Balwani when she was 18 – he joined her blood-testing startup, Theranos, in 2009 as president and chief operating officer. The pair, who are each facing 10 counts of wire fraud and two counts of conspiracy, later admitted in deposition tapes that they never told investors of their relationship.
Both have pleaded not guilty and deny any wrongdoing in connection with what federal prosecutors call a multimillion-dollar scheme to defraud investors, doctors and patients.
Attorneys for Holmes plan to “introduce evidence that Mr. Balwani verbally disparaged and withdrew ‘affection if she displeased him;’ controlled what she ate, how she dressed, and how much money she could spend, who she could interact with – essentially dominating her and erasing her capacity to make decisions,” according to the unsealed filings.
“Ms. Holmes’ allegations are deeply offensive to Mr. Balwani, devastating personally to him,” Jefferey Coopersmith, an attorney for Balwani, wrote in the filings.
Former Theranos President and COO Ramesh “Sunny” Balwani smiles after a hearing at a federal court in San Jose, California, July 17, 2019.
Stephen Lam | Reuters
The documents also answer the question of whether Holmes plans to testify. “Ms. Holmes is likely to testify herself to the reasons why she believed, relied on and deferred to Mr. Balwani,” her attorneys wrote.
The filings also reveal that Holmes plans to argue she suffers from mental health issues, including post-traumatic stress disorder, intimate-partner abuse syndrome, anxiety and depression due to her relationship with Balwani.
Balwani vehemently denied the allegations, citing them as a reason for his request for a separate trial, which was granted. Coopersmith writes that Holmes’ allegations “to establish her innocence would require him to defend against not only the government’s case, but to defend against her allegations as well because her allegations are so inflammatory that they cannot be left unrebutted before the jury.”
Lawyers for Holmes also asked to separate their trials, saying she “cannot be near him without suffering physical distress.”
“She argues that if she is tried together with Mr. Balwani, she will likely suffer stress and physical ailments that will manifest visually, such that she will not appear to the jury in her true sense.”
In 2020, Davila agreed that they would be tried separately. The records were unsealed in response to a motion by publisher Dow Jones, a move that defense attorneys for Holmes and Balwani tried to block until after jury selection.
Separating the trials is a strategy many legal analysts have said was an important ruling for Holmes.
“What it allows a defendant to do is to point, at trial, at the empty chair,” Barbara McQuade, a former U.S. attorney and NBC News legal analyst, said. “To tell the jury that’s the real bad guy here, it was all him, and have the jury find some sympathy with that story and acquit Elizabeth Holmes.”
McQuade said this can go both ways, adding “of course at his trial where you have a different jury trying the case, he could do the same thing to her. Point to her empty chair and say it wasn’t Sunny, it was Elizabeth.”
Attorneys for Holmes and Balwani did not immediately respond to CNBC’s request for comment.
Jury selection for Holmes’ trial begins on Tuesday.
—CNBC’s Scott Cohn contributed to this report.