Backpage Defense Lawyers Call for Mistrial After ‘Inflammatory’ Opening Statements
The federal trial of Backpage.com’s founders and former executives launched last week—and it’s off to a frustrating start. In the state’s opening remarks, prosecutor Reggie Jones misrepresented Backpage ads and the law, while harping on specific crimes of which the defendants aren’t even accused. Defense lawyers are already calling for a mistrial.
“The government’s opening argument was a parade of horribles about human trafficking destroying the lives of trafficked women and children, with barely any mention of charged counts and zero linkage of any Defendant to any charged count,” states their motion. “The opening offended the law, ignored indisputable facts, and consisted of inflammatory, unproven, and unprovable assertions that fail in any event to address what the government must prove to convict any defendant.”
On trial are veteran journalists and publishers Michael Lacey and James Larkin, who founded the classified ad platform Backpage in 2004. Four of their former colleagues at Backpage join them. The six were arrested in April 2018—and authorities have been fighting dirty ever since.
(Reason has written about the lead-up to this arrest and the subsequent prosecution many times; you can find all of our coverage here. For a good overview of who’s on trial and what’s at stake, see this piece from our December 2018 issue and this video. For more on what federal prosecutors said about Backpage behind closed doors and how it contradicts their public statements, see this piece.)
Lacey, Larkin, and others are charged with facilitating prostitution in violation of the federal Travel Act. They are not charged with sex trafficking, a federal crime that involves not just commercial sex acts (a.k.a. prostitution) but the involvement of minors in such acts or the use of force, threats, fraud, or coercion. Though prostitution is not illegal under federal law, it is a misdemeanor crime almost everywhere in the U.S., and the Travel Act—with its invocation of interstate commerce—gives the feds the means to go after people accused of facilitating it. The defendants are also charged with conspiracy and various money laundering offenses related to this alleged facilitation.
Before Backpage was seized by the feds, it operated much like Craigslist, providing a platform for user-generated ads of all sorts, including adult ads. In its indictment, the Department of Justice cites 50 specific adult ads that allegedly prove defendants facilitated prostitution.
Judge Susan Brnovich of the U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona has stressed multiple times that this case is not about everything ever published on Backpage but the specific ads mentioned in the indictment and whether the specific defendants now on trial knew about these ads and knew they were facilitating illegal activity. Brnovich ruled that federal prosecutors can make general reference to the fact that people have accused the site of facilitating sex trafficking but not reference specific crimes or accusations unrelated to the case at hand.
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