In the week ahead of former Theranos COO Sunny Balwani’s fraud trial, which was set to begin today before being postponed due to a juror being exposed to someone with COVID, the Santa Clara County Superior Court was hard at work screening potential jurors from the pool of local citizens.
This is a typical part of court cases meant to ensure that a jury’s makeup is representative of the larger community. But the process is a bit trickier with high-profile cases like those of Balwani and Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes, given the potential for jurors’ opinions to be influenced by information from outside of the trial; things like, say, a flashy 8-episode streaming miniseries based on a podcast by the same name.
While the amount of reporting and attention around Theranos and its disgraced founder obviously presented something of a complication in the jury selection process, what US District Judge Edward Davila might not have expected was for The Dropout, Hulu’s dramatization of Holmes’ fall from grace, to become a factor here. Law360 reports that, before Davila ultimately swore in a full panel of 12 jurors and six alternates, the four-day-long selection process was marked by the dismissal of two would-be jurors who had begun watching The Dropout.
One dismissed potential juror told the court that while she stopped watching the series after being summoned for jury duty, she didn’t believe that she could be unbiased in her deliberation for the trial. The other dismissed potential juror said that while he had not exactly watched the show himself, he’d “accidentally” seen enough of it to understand “the gist of what was going on,” due to his girlfriend watching three episodes of The Dropout over the weekend. In addition to those two people being dismissed, other potential jurors noted that they’d seen advertisements for The Dropout online, with one person calling them a “constant” presence on Facebook.
The judge asks if the juror can be unbiased. He asks to speak in private. "We will do that," the judge replies. He seems pretty peeved that jurors watched The Dropout on Hulu after they filled out the juror questionnaire and were told not to research the case.— Dorothy Atkins (@doratki) March 15, 2022
High-profile court cases and people being excused from jury duty are not new, and the bulk of the dismissed potential jurors were sent home for perfectly normal reasons like hardship and biases stemming from their professional backgrounds. What feels notable about The Dropout factoring into Balwani’s trial — even in this capacity — is how an actual court case has been hamstrung by a new adaptation of a relatively recent investigative podcast that was reporting the actual events in something close to real time.
The Dropout is just one of many shows, like Showtime’s Super Pumped, Apple TV Plus’ WeCrashed, and Netflix’s Inventing Anna, that have embraced a “move fast” ethos in their approach to fashioning stories ripped from the headlines. The Dropout is, in part, a show detailing Elizabeth Holmes’ origins and delving into the unicorn-obsessed culture of Silicon Valley. But the show is also a reflection on Theranos — a company that was more than just its founder — and the many people around Holmes like Balwani who played varying roles in its genesis.
While the court seems confident in its ability to adjust for whatever influence The Dropout may have on Balwani’s trial, the fact that it has to at all raises interesting questions about Hulu and ABC’s decisions to turn an ongoing news event into informative entertainment so quickly. Holmes herself was first charged in the summer of 2018, subsequently indicted in the summer of 2020, and ultimately found guilty this past January — two months ahead of The Dropout’s premiere on Hulu.
For all of The Dropout’s attention and care into recounting things that have already happened, there are elements of the Theranos story as it relates to Holmes — who isn’t scheduled to be sentenced until this September — that simply have not come to pass yet. The same is true of Balwani’s role in the Theranos story, more of which may come to light as his trial gets underway — just as The Dropout hits its midway point.