Judge declares mistrial for Backpage website founders, says government tainted jury with testimony

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PHOENIX – A federal judge on Tuesday halted the criminal trial of former executives and employees of the Backpage website, saying the government, in presenting its case, unfairly tainted the jury with testimony about child sex trafficking, instead of focusing on the crime at hand – whether the defendants helped facilitate sex work.

“The government, as prosecutors, are held to a higher standard,” said Judge Susan Brnovich from the bench as court opened for what was expected to be the eighth day of the trial. “Their goal is not to win at any costs, but their goal is to win by the rules."

Lacey and Larkin founded the Phoenix New Times, held ownership interests in other weeklies such as The Village Voice and ultimately sold their newspapers in 2013. But they held onto Backpage, which authorities say generated $500 million in sex work-related revenue from its inception in 2004 until April 2018, when it was shut down by the government.

Backpage.com founders James Larkin (left) and Michael Lacey (right) as they leave federal court in Phoenix on April 30, 2018.
Backpage.com founders James Larkin (left) and Michael Lacey (right) as they leave federal court in Phoenix on April 30, 2018.

While prosecutors say the site published many ads that depicted children who were victims of sex trafficking, no one in the federal case in Arizona is charged with sex trafficking or child sex trafficking.

The pair started Backpage to serve as an online home for classified advertising, similar to the sometimes-racy ads that appeared in the back of the printed newspaper.

But the government said that the two, in a conspiracy with other executives and two employees, did more than merely publish ads. Instead, the government said, the defendants knowingly worked to lure sex workers and pimps to the website, cornering the market on thinly veiled ads for sex work.

In all, six former Backpage operators have pleaded not guilty to charges of facilitating prostitution. Of the six, Lacey, Larkin and two others have pleaded not guilty to money laundering charges.

The site’s marketing director has pleaded guilty to conspiring to facilitate prostitution and acknowledged he participated in a scheme to give free ads to to win over their business. Additionally, the CEO of the company when the government shut the site down, Carl Ferrer, pleaded guilty to a separate federal conspiracy case in Arizona and to state money laundering charges in California. The new trial date was set for Oct. 5.

Neither Lacey nor Larkin would comment after heading out of the courthouse. “Seal,“ was all that Lacey said.

Prosecutors said that Backpage changed its standards in an effort to keep law enforcement and reporters at bay.

Susan Brnovich
Susan Brnovich

Brnovich had warned prosecutors, up to and including this week, about keeping testimony focused on the 100-count indictment. She said she wanted to tamp down on discussions of child sex trafficking and murders of people who had advertised on Backpage, knowing such testimony would inflame the jury.

However, Brnovich ruled that two witnesses, a woman who was sold on Backpage as a teen and an expert, crossed the line.

“Although I don’t see it as intentional misconduct,” Brnovich said from the bench, “the cumulative effect of all of that is something that I can’t overlook and won’t overlook.”

Contributing: Jacques Billeaud, Associated Press

This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Federal judge declares mistrial in Backpage executives' case