Federal Judge Susan Brnovich ruled Sept. 14 that prosecutors abused defendants so severely, a mistrial was required for the founders of Backpage.com. Now taken offline, Backpage was a classified advertising site; among other categories, such as automotive, rentals, and jobs, was an adult ad section. The trial began last week in Phoenix, AZ, of James Larkin and Michael Lacey, who used to own the website, on charges of facilitating prostitution. In a powerful rebuke to the Department of Justice, Brnovich said, “The government, as prosecutors, are held to a higher standard” and that “their goal is not to win at any costs, but their goal is to win by the rules.”
Out of Order…
Brnovich’s ruling followed a breathtaking display by federal prosecutors, who ignored her instructions to stay focused on the evidence against the accused. Instead, DOJ trial attorney Reginald E. Jones kept bringing up the awful spectacle of child trafficking, which had nothing to do with the charges against Larkin and Lacey. Jones is an assistant U.S. attorney brought in from New York as a hired gun to make the case. In spite of the horrible cartel violence and all manner of federal crimes committed in Arizona, somehow it seems the DOJ’s Arizona district doesn’t have the legal talent to prosecute this relatively minor crime?
Jones’ first sentences to the jury described a mother’s attempt to purchase her daughter away from a woman acting as the then-teenager’s pimp. A devastating story, but one that had no connection to the case being tried. Defense lawyers objected, which the judge sustained, but the toothpaste was out of the tube. The government had associated Larkin and Lacey with child trafficking to the jurors. Perhaps Jones misunderstood the rules of evidence. He repeated his errors with witnesses.
Please Think of the Children!
Instead of producing a witness who could testify to the defendants’ alleged criminal behavior, the government doubled down with more tales of child prostitution. That was the prosecutors’ undoing. “I have concerns that the government has crossed that line several times, even after I advised the government not to do it at sidebar,” said Brnovich, a Trump appointee to the federal bench. It’s hard to overstate the prejudicial value of a woman on the witness stand sobbing as she tells the story of her victimization, including numerous rapes. Her story, irrelevant to the case against Lacey and Larkin, seemed designed to taint the proceedings with the horrors of her personal experience. Brnovich said, “That is something that I can’t overlook and won’t overlook” in granting the mistrial.
It’s not over yet for Lacey and Larkin. They still have to wear ankle monitors and confine themselves to Maricopa County unless given special permission to leave. There will be a status hearing in October to see what happens next – namely, if the government decides it wants to re-try the defendants. Reporter Stephen Lemons, who has been tweeting throughout the proceedings, spoke with defense lawyers, who told him “they likely will move for the dismissal of charges based on double jeopardy.”
First, prosecutors tried to seize all the defendants’ money so they couldn’t hire competent and therefore expensive federal criminal defense lawyers. When that didn’t work, they tried to disqualify the Backpage founders’ lawyers from defending them in court. Then, they tried using sex-trafficking victims to convict the website’s founders on charges that had nothing to do with the case. It’s been more than three years since the feds seized Backpage.com and millions in assets from the defendants. Justice demands they get no leeway if they persist in another trial.
Read more from Scott D. Cosenza.