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In Cross-Examination, Ellen Pao's Credibility Comes Under Fire

"Didn't you, Ms. Pao?"

Courtroom sketch by Vicki Behringer.

Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers’ lawyer Lynne Hermle stepped up to begin her cross-examination of Ellen Pao this afternoon, and one of the largest rooms at San Francisco Superior Court was completely full for the first time in the nearly three-week trial.

Onlookers — a balance between men and women, diverse ages and races — had moved extra plastic chairs into the walkways. Half a dozen others stood with their arms crossed by the double doors. They’d been reading along. They’d heard about it on the radio. They wanted to see what was happening.

The case is captivating Silicon Valley insiders and outsiders, and that energy seems only to be building.

Hermle, who is a much more compelling orator than Pao’s lawyers, came out swinging. Her voice was loud and her tone was sharp when she asked questions like: “And you still slept with him two months later?” She ended many of her questions with an accusatory, “Didn’t you, Ms. Pao?”

The cross-examination, which began today and will continue tomorrow, could make or break Pao’s case, a gender discrimination suit against her former employer Kleiner. And if Pao has played rough — exposing the dirt in Kleiner email accounts, nasty internal politics and all-male ski trips — Hermle today came back just as strong. She focused on Pao’s sexual relationship with Ajit Nazre, who allegedly punished her professionally after they broke up (and who was subsequently fired for sexually harassing another colleague).

It was uncomfortable to watch and read along through their flirty, intimate texts, the ungainly pronunciation of emoticons and their text breakup — when Pao found out Nazre was secretly still with his wife.

(For those who want a blow-by-blow, we are keeping a liveblog of the testimony that will fire up again at 9 am PT tomorrow.)

Hermle began by asking Pao if she remembered saying in her deposition that she didn’t intend to become a venture capitalist. She couldn’t recall.

“You do remember me taking your deposition though, don’t you?” Hermle said.

“All six days,” Pao said.

Hermle cued up a video from Pao’s deposition interview. In the very short clip, Pao was wearing a blue sweater and looking down. Off camera, Hermle asked about whether Pao had intended to move to an operational role after Kleiner. She looked up and said, “Yes,” and the clip ended. We skip forward and Hermle asked on the tape: “Did you go in with the idea that you would work in venture capital long-term?” Pao’s head was down again, and she looked up and said, “No.”

On the stand, Pao smiled, but not confidently. The tone in the room was hushed. This deposition video directly contradicts what Pao’s attorney has been arguing about her post-Kleiner goals. Suddenly today’s “I don’t recall” on the stand became a clear “Yes” and “No” in the video to those very same questions.

There was one particular exchange where Hermle expertly laid traps for Pao to trip on. First, she asked Pao on the stand whether she had asked Kleiner CFO Sue Biglieri about the company’s equal opportunity employment policy. Pao replied that she did.

Hermle played Pao’s deposition video, which she noted was taken under oath.

Off camera, Hermle asked: “Did you ever ask Sue Biglieri if the firm maintained an EEO policy?” Pao on camera softly said, “No.”

Back on the stand, Pao said she asked for the policy in January 2012.

So Hermle took us back to the deposition video, where Hermle asked, “Did you ever ask anyone at Kleiner if the firm maintained a policy that prohibited discrimination or harassment?”

Pao had a different reply on the tape: “No.”

Other topics in this first half-day of cross-examination included Pao’s comparisons of herself to other partners at the firm; a long and uncomfortable reading of the months of flirty and angry emails, texts and instant messages between Nazre and Pao; and a contentious recollection of how long it took Pao to complain about the fallout from the relationship to her bosses at the company.

For instance, Hermle and Pao went back and forth on the details of the first inappropriate interaction. The first time Nazre did anything inappropriate was when he put his arm around her on a bench, Hermle said — or maybe it was in a cab, Pao said. Pao said she couldn’t move because she was injured after having been hit by a cab, and she didn’t say no because she was in a daze. That’s the gist, though they fought over every bit of it.

In an email after the trip, Nazre mentioned something of the drainage in Pao’s knee. This is a reference to that cab accident that left Pao injured, Hermle established. She asked, “And the drainage? That wasn’t Mr. Nazre’s fault?” Pao replied, “Not directly.”

“What do you mean?” Hermle said.

“He crossed in front, and I followed him and he made it across and I didn’t,” Pao said.

”You’re not trying to blame him for what happened to you are you, Ms. Pao?” Hermle said.

Pao, getting a rare laugh from the crowd on this tense afternoon, replied: “Not this part.”

This article originally appeared on Recode.net.