PHOENIX, A.Z. — The judge presiding over the criminal trial against the former owners of Backpage.com declared a mistrial in the case after federal prosecutors tainted the jury with sensationalist testimony about unfounded child sex trafficking claims while the case was focused on the alleged crime of the facilitation of sex work across state lines.
“The government, as prosecutors, are held to a higher standard,” said US District Judge Susan Brnovich in a statement from the bench this week. “Their goal is not to win at any costs, but their goal is to win by the rules.”
“I, at the beginning of this, gave the government some leeway, because child sex trafficking, sex trafficking, are forms of prostitution,” Brnovich said. “Yet, in the [government’s] opening and with every witness thereafter, it seems, the government has abused that leeway.” The judge’s statement echoes the same complaint filed by legal counsel for Backpage.com founders Michael Lacey and James Larkin and other senior executives at the now-defunct classifieds website once popular for adult entertainers and sex workers engaging in consensual and often legal forms of such work. Lacey, Larkin, and other employees of Backpage.com were indicted on a variety of charges brought by federal and state prosecutors for alleged violations of the flawed FOSTA-SESTA law passed by a Republican held Congress and White House in 2018.
YNOT reported last week that the defense moved for a mistrial based on the gratuitous and salacious claims made by federal prosecutor Reggie Jones, a deputy US attorney. Brnovich, who has been consistently in favor of the prosecution over the defense throughout the proceedings of the trial and pre-trial phases, stunned the court and issued a ruling that supported the defense. The defense was able to further prove the need to issues mistrial citing the fact that federal prosecutors utilized the so-called expert testimony of an anti-porn and anti-sex-work advocate that masqueraded as an “online sex trafficking expert.”
The expert who testified was Dr. Susan Cooper, who is on record claiming that the consumption of adult content has a cocaine-like effect on the human brain. These debunked claims are often trumpeted by anti-porn groups like NCOSE. Stephen Lemons, a Phoenix-based journalist who edits the Lacey and Larkin-owned Front Page Confidential news and commentary website, was the first to take note of the mistrial. Describing Cooper’s testimony, Lemons reported that “under questioning by prosecutor Reggie Jones, [Cooper] consistently conflated voluntary, adult sex work with sex trafficking, despite strenuous objections from attorney Joy Bertrand, who represents one of Lacey and Larkin’s co-defendants.”
Brnovich ordered October 5, 2021 for a scheduled status hearing. Other federal and state charges have been levied against Lacey and Larkin, including employees and former senior executives. Virtually all people who were indicted in these investigations have pleaded not guilty to the crimes they’re accused of.
Lacey and Larkin previously owned an influential chain of independent alt-weekly newspapers. These include the Phoenix New Times and The Village Voice. At the peak of their newspaper empire, Lacey and Larkin controlled about 17 newspapers across the country. Both were the targets of lawsuits that challenged the sanctity of the First Amendment and a free press. One of these lawsuits came from the notorious former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who was fingered on corruption and mismanagement allegations (that all turned out to be true) by Lacey and Larkin’s Phoenix New Times. In 2008, the American Civil Liberties Union awarded Lacey and Larkin with the organization’s coveted Civil Libertarian of the Year Award for their work on such stories.