Backpage Gets a Mistrial After Prosecution Goes Too Far

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Backpage Gets a Mistrial After Prosecution Goes Too Far
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Photo: Cliff Owen (AP)

In a surprise twist, Backpage co-founders have scored a temporary victory in a federal prostitution and money laundering case that’s been ongoing since 2018. The Associated Press reports that the judge has sided with their request for a mistrial after they spent days arguing that the prosecution tainted the jury by laser-focusing on appalling accounts of victims who were sex trafficked as minors through ads on the site.

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Backpage’s leadership team has not been formally charged with sex trafficking, but rather facilitation of prostitution (the legal term) and various related money laundering counts. In a motion for a mistrial filed just days after the government’s opening arguments, the defense for Backpage’s co-founders Michael Lacey and David Larkin, along with former Backpage employees, argued that the sex trafficking stories were inflammatory and irrelevant, and that the jury hadn’t been selected for their ability to fairly judge a sex trafficking trial. The defense counsel wrote that “[d]uring the past three days of jury selection, it was clear in each panel that child sex trafficking and human trafficking were lightning-rod topics for potential jurors.”

In its opening statements and witness examination, the prosecution laid the foundation of their case on stories of victims who’d been trafficked as minors, using the word “children” 47 times and “trafficking” 13 times. They asked a witness for an accounting of her sexual assaults, at age 15, by people who’d responded to Backpage ads. In a motion to limit that testimony, Backpage’s counsel argued that “none of [the witness’s] anticipated testimony will prove any nexus between Defendants and the pimps who posted Svendgard’s ads to the site.”

U.S. District Judge Susan Brnovich denied various motions for a mistrial. During opening statements, Brnovich allowed the prosecution to go ahead with their evidence, saying that “the government didn’t cross the line on that issue, in my mind, because they didn’t go into any of the details. It was merely the fact that this happened.”

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