Why can’t Shkreli’s judge find jurors? Prospects blame ‘pharma bro’ for every drug pricing scandal

Martin Shkreli
Prospective jurors in the case against pharma investor Martin Shkreli are blaming him for controversies over drug pricing.

Judge Kiyo Matsumoto, who is presiding over the trial of pharma entrepreneur and hedge fund manager Martin Shkreli in New York, will be polling about 140 prospective jurors in the case today, after Monday’s jury selection came up empty. But if the first day of jury selection is any indication, he’s unlikely to have much luck finding average citizens who can maintain a neutral stance on the controversial life sciences investor.

Shkreli is most famous for jacking up the price of Daraprim, a drug to treat a parasitic disease, from $13.50 to $750 a pill in 2015, when he was running Turing Pharmaceuticals, but he’s on trial on securities fraud charges related to his time at another company he founded, Retrophin. Nevertheless, potential jurors seemed to equate Shkreli with every controversy over drug pricing that has emerged in the past couple of years.

On Monday, potential jurors referred to Shkreli as “a snake,” “the face of corporate greed” and “the most hated man in America,” according to several press reports. Many prospects confessed they could not be impartial. Three lashed out at Shkreli for raising the price of allergy shot EpiPen, reported the New York Times, even though he had nothing to do with that drug, which is manufactured by Mylan. Matsumoto and defense lawyers questioned potential jurors in a sidebar that included press access.

Benjamin Brafman, who is representing Shkreli, told FiercePharma in an email that he objected to the private sidebars because he was concerned that the resulting press reports would prejudice the case going forward. “The real irony is the fact that the reasons so many people feel strongly about Martin has nothing whatsoever to do with the facts ... of this case,” he said.

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Brafman has a point. Shkreli was arrested by the FBI in December 2015 on charges that he used shares of Retrophin to settle debts he incurred while running his hedge fund, MSMB Capital Management. An SEC investigation alleged that Shkreli claimed to have $35 million, when in fact he had $1,000. In essence, he was running a Ponzi-like scheme, telling investors MSMB had a 36% return when in fact it was running losses of 18%, the SEC alleged. Criminal charges were filed by the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of New York.

Still, average Americans can relate more to high drug prices than they can to backroom corporate dealings—a phenomenon that was on display in Matsumoto’s courtroom on Monday. One potential juror reported that both of his parents take Daraprim, according to the Times. “The price has been going up in the last few years, so they can’t afford their drugs,” he said. Another called Shkreli “the price gouger of drugs.”

It seems unlikely Shkreli will ever shake his bad reputation, despite the heavy hitters on his side—including Brafman, a well-known criminal defense attorney who has represented such celebrities as rapper Sean “P. Diddy” Combs and mafia leader Salvatore Gravano. To a large degree, Shkreli is the victim of his own behavior, which included a series of Twitter rants lashing out at everyone from the media to politicians. (His Twitter account has since been suspended.)

RELATED: Pharma outcast Shkreli riles up protesters at Boston speaking events

In February, during a speech at Harvard, Shkreli tried to defend his long-held position that increasing the price of Daraprim was necessary to raise funding for research aimed at developing more drugs to treat neglected conditions. But the event drew protest from angry students, who rattled pill bottles filled with coins and shouted insults at him.

And Turing is far from shaking off its association with Shkreli. Last week, the company elected five new board members who have close business ties with Shkreli, according to Endpoints News. The company said in a statement to Endpoints that it would review its management team and "recent credible offers that Turing has received from reputable pharmaceutical entities for the acquisition of company stock or assets." Turing did not immediately respond to a request for comment from Fierce.

As for the trial, the lawyers and Matsumoto are headed back to the courtroom to poll more potential jurors, including about 40 from the first day who were asked to return for further questioning. Brafman is clearly frustrated by the proceedings so far. After the juror who called Shkreli a “snake” stepped down, reporters heard Brafman utter, “So much for the presumption of innocence.”