PHOENIX — A judge declared a mistrial Tuesday at the trial of the founders of the lucrative classified site Backpage.com on charges of facilitating prostitution and laundering money after deciding prosecutors had too many references to child sex trafficking in a case where no one faced such a charge.
Michael Lacey, James Larkin and four other Backpage employees were accused of taking part in a scheme to knowingly sell ads for sex on the site. While prosecutors say the site published many ads that depicted children who were victims of sex trafficking, no one in the federal case in Arizona is charged with sex trafficking or child sex trafficking.
U.S. District Judge Susan Brnovich said that the cumulative effect of the child sex trafficking references made by prosecutors in opening statements and by witnesses for the government “is something that I can’t overlook and will not overlook.”
Before trial, the judge concluded she would allow evidence showing that people were trafficked using the site, but would not allow prosecutors to linger on the details of the abuse suffered by victims.
“It seemed the government abused that leeway,” Brnovich said. The judge said one government witness testified about being raped more than once, which raises a “whole new emotional response from people.”