Michael Lacey, James Larkin and four other Backpage employees were accused of participating in a plan to intentionally sell sex ads on the site.
A judge announced Tuesday the trial of the founders of the lucrative classified site Backpage.com after prosecutors ruled there were too many references to child sex trafficking on charges of facilitating prostitution, where anyone could be accused of such did not face the charges.
Michael Lacey, James Larkin and four other Backpage employees were accused of participating in a plan to intentionally sell sex ads on the site. While prosecutors say the site has published several ads depicting children who were sex trafficking victims, no one has been charged with sex trafficking or child sex trafficking in the federal case in Arizona.
U.S. District Judge Susan Branovich said the cumulative impression that prosecutors gave from initial statements and witnesses for the government in terms of child sex trafficking is “something that I cannot and will not ignore.”
SC sheriff warns child poachers after 5 Sting’s arrest: ‘If you hunt our kids you will become a victim’
Before the trial, the judge concluded that she would allow evidence to show that people were trafficked using the site, but would not allow prosecutors to linger on the details of the abuses committed by the victims.
“It looked like the government had abused that exemption,” Branovich said. The judge said that a government witness testified about the rape more than once, which raised an “entirely new emotional reaction from the public.”
Stating that he did not believe prosecutors had committed intentional misconduct, Branovich said prosecutors are held to a high standard and it was not their job to win at all costs.
Lacey and Larkin said the site never allowed ads for sex and used people and automated tools to remove such ads. The content on the site was protected by the First Amendment and the site helped authorities investigate sex trafficking cases and earned praise from law enforcement for their assistance.
In total, six former Backpage operators have pleaded not guilty to charges of promoting prostitution. Of the six, Lacey, Larkin and two others have pleaded not guilty to money laundering charges.
Lacey and Larkin founded the Phoenix New Times, held ownership interests in other weekly newspapers such as The Village Voice, and eventually sold their newspapers in 2013. But they remained on Backpage, which officials say generated $500 million in prostitution-related revenue from its founding. From 2004 to April 2018 when it was closed by the government.
Prosecutors say Backpage’s operators ignored warnings to stop ads for prostitution, some involving children. He is accused of giving free advertisements to prostitutes and arranging for farming with others who employ him in the flesh trade to post advertisements with the company.
Officials say Backpage employees will identify prostitutes through Google searches, then call them and place a free ad. The site is also alleged to have made a commercial arrangement in which it would place advertisements on another site that would allow customers to post reviews of their experiences with prostitutes.
Prosecutors said the moderation efforts by the site were aimed at concealing the true nature of the ads.
The site’s marketing director has pleaded guilty to conspiracy to facilitate prostitution and has admitted that he participated in a scheme to offer free advertising to prostitutes to win over their business. Additionally, when the government shut down the site, the company’s CEO, Carl Ferrer, pleaded guilty to a separate federal conspiracy case in Arizona and money laundering charges in California. The new test date was set for October 5.