(Reuters) – Martin Shkreli’s lawyer Benjamin Brafman did not run from his client’s troubled public image, describing him as a misunderstood genius, as he began his defense in the former drug company executive’s securities fraud trial on Wednesday.
Shkreli’s reputation stems largely from his decision to raise the price of anti-parisitic drug Daraprim to $750 a pill, from $13.50 when he was chief executive of Turing Pharmaceuticals in 2015. That move sparked outrage among patients and U.S. lawmakers.
But Brafman reminded jurors that Shkreli is “not on trial for all of the other stuff that made him a household name.”
“You may not like Martin Shkreli,” Brafman said. “And you may have reasons to hate Martin Shkreli, but that is not a basis on which to convict.”
Instead, Shkreli, 34, is facing charges over to his tenure as an executive at drug company Retrophin Inc and hedge fund MSMB Capital Management between 2009 and 2012.
Shkreli’s lawyer peppered his opening statement with Lady Gaga lyrics. “As Lady Gaga said, he was born this way,” Brafman said. “You want to call him names, you can call him names. Just don’t call him guilty, because he’s not guilty.” Later, in reference to another one of Gaga’s song “Million Reasons,” Brafman made his case again.
“The government’s going to stand up and give you 100 million reasons to convict Mr. Shkreli,” Brafman said. “I’m going give you one good reason to acquit him … he’s not guilty.”
Before Brafman’s opening, Assistant U.S. Attorney Karthik Srinivasan told jurors that Shkreli lied about MSMB’s finances to lure investors, concealed devastating losses and repaid them with cash and stock stolen from Retrophin, which he founded in 2011.
“They got their money back only because the defendant stole from a public company, and it eventually turned out to be successful,” Srinivasan said.
Shkreli was ousted as Retrophin’s CEO in 2014.
Brafman, in his opening statement, conceded that Shkreli’s statements to investors were not always “100 percent accurate.”
But he said Shkreli’s wealthy investors trusted Shkreli despite knowing about his erratic personality, and were rewarded in the end, reaping millions of dollars in returns.
“Martin Shkreli didn’t lie to them,” Brafman said. “They were betting on Martin Shkreli’s genius.”
Brafman described Shkreli as a socially awkward “nerd” exploited by people around him, a sharp contrast with the villainous “pharma bro” persona depicted throughout media.
The lawyer told jurors that Retrophin board members bullied Shkreli, suggesting he was autistic, questioning his sexuality and eventually forced him out because they were embarrassed by him.
“Martin Shkreli came to work in t-shirts and sneakers and wore a stethoscope and bunny slippers and they couldn’t handle it,” Brafman said.
Retrophin spokeswoman Emma Schultz said the company will “let the facts speak for themselves in court.”
Reuters reporting by Brendan Pierson.