Politics Mistrial declared in case against Backpage.com founders
Defense lawyers say 1st Amendment protected ads on Backpage
PHOENIX (AP) — Lawyers defending the founders of the classified site Backpage.com against allegations they knowingly ran ads for prostitution told jurors Wednesday that the adult service ads published by their clients were controversial but ultimately protected by the First Amendment. Attorneys for Michael Lacey and James Larkin said in opening statements at their trial that the site ran legally allowable ads for escort services, but didn’t publish ads for sex.
A federal judge on Tuesday declared a mistrial in the case involving prostitution and money laundering charges against founders of the classified site Backpage.com, noting that none of the defendants have been charged with child sex trafficking, despite it being mentioned several times by prosecutors during the trial.
Judge Susan Brnovich for the U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona said that repeated references to child sex trafficking by both prosecutors and witnesses brought by the government "is something that I can't overlook and will not overlook,".
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Brnovich had said before the start of the trial that while she would permit evidence indicating that individuals were trafficked on the website, prosecutors could not focus on specific details of alleged abuse.
"It seemed the government abused that leeway," she said, adding that lingering on details of abuse brings a "whole new emotional response from people," potentially impacting the integrity of the trial.
Former Backpage.com owners Michael Lacey and James Larkin, as well as four other company employees, have been accused by federal prosecutors of intentionally selling ads for sex on the website.
While prosecutors have said that many of the victims of the alleged sex trafficking were children, child sex trafficking is not among the charges facing the former employees.
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All six of the defendants have pleaded not guilty to charges of facilitating prostitution, and four of them, including Lacey and Larkin, have also pleaded not guilty to money laundering.
Prosecutors have argued that Backpage generated roughly $500 million from the alleged prostitution scheme between the time it was first launched in 2004 and when it was shut down by the federal government in 2018, according to the AP.
Lacey and Larkin, who founded the Phoenix New Times and held ownerships in other weekly news outlets, have maintained that they did not allow ads for sex, and claimed that they attempted to use various tools to remove the allegedly unauthorized ads that appeared on their site.
The news agency reported that Brnovich has set a new trial date for Oct. 5.
In April 2018, Backpageto human trafficking charges in Texas, and then-CEO Carl Ferrer pleaded guilty to money laundering charges in California.
Months later, Dan Hyer, the sales director for the website, charges, admitting that he was involved in a scheme to give free advertising to sex workers in an attempt to keep them away from competitor platforms.
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