PHOENIX – A federal judge on Tuesday suspended the criminal trial of former Backpage website executives and employees, saying the government, in presenting its case, had unfairly tainted the jury with child sex trafficking testimony, instead of focus on the crime in question – whether the accused helped facilitate sex work.
“The government, as prosecutors, is held to a higher standard,” Judge Susan Brnovich said as the court opened for what was to be day eight of the trial. “Their goal is not to win at all costs, but their goal is to win by the rules.”
Lacey and Larkin founded the Phoenix New Times, had stakes in other weeklies such as The Village Voice, and eventually sold their papers in 2013. But they kept Backpage, which authorities said raised $ 500 million. in income from sex work since its inception in 2004 until April 2018, when it was shut down by the government.
While prosecutors say the site has posted numerous ads depicting child sex trafficking victims, no one in the Arizona federal case is charged with sex trafficking or child sex trafficking.
The couple started Backpage to serve as an online home for classifieds, similar to the sometimes daring ads that appeared on the back of the printed newspaper.
But the government said the two, in a conspiracy with other executives and two employees, did more than just post ads. Instead, the government said, the defendants knowingly worked to lure sex workers and pimps to the website, cornering the market for thinly veiled sex work ads.
In total, six former Backpage operators have pleaded not guilty to facilitating prostitution. Of the six, Lacey, Larkin and two others have pleaded not guilty to money laundering charges.
The site’s marketing director pleaded guilty to conspiring to facilitate prostitution and admitted to participating in a scheme to distribute free advertisements to conquer their business. Additionally, the company’s CEO, when the government shut down the site, Carl Ferrer, pleaded guilty to another federal conspiracy case in Arizona and money laundering charges in California. The new trial date has been set for October 5.
Neither Lacey nor Larkin commented after exiting the courthouse. “Seal” was all Lacey said.
Prosecutors said Backpage changed its standards in an attempt to keep law enforcement and journalists at bay.
Brnovich had warned prosecutors, up to and including this week, to keep testimony focused on the indictment of 100 counts. She said she wanted to hush up discussions of child sex trafficking and the murders of people who advertised on Backpage, knowing that such testimony would set the jury on fire.
However, Brnovich ruled that two witnesses, a woman who was sold on Backpage as a teenager and an expert, crossed the line.
“While I don’t see this as intentional foul,” said Brnovich from the bench, “the cumulative effect of all of this is something I cannot ignore and will not overlook.”
Contributor: Jacques Billeaud, Associated Press