On September 14, 2021, U.S. District Judge Susan Brnovich declared a mistrial in the trial of the founders of Backpage.com that began earlier this month. The founders of the advertisement website faced charges of facilitating prostitution and money laundering.
The two founders of Backpage.com Michael Lacey and James Larkin, are former owners of the Phoenix New Times and other alt-weekly newspapers. Lacey and Larkin started Backpage.com in 2004 in an effort to recapture the classified advertisement revenue that was lost to Craigslist. However, the website became most notable for its advertisements from the “adult section.” Authorities believe that the prostitution-related ad revenue from Backpage.com generated $500 million since its inception. These advertisements eventually led to the founders’ arrest in 2016 on charges for conspiring to commit the crime of pimping, although the case was later dismissed. The charges of facilitating prostitution and laundering money that led to this federal trial were filed in April 2018. Following the filing of these charges, the federal government shut down the Backpage.com website.
A judge declares a mistrial when there is a serious procedural error or misconduct that would result in an unfair trial. As a result of a mistrial, the judge will not decide on the case and may schedule a new trial. In this case, U.S. District Judge Susan Brnovich declared the mistrial after deciding that the prosecutors made too many references to child sex trafficking during the trial, which was not specifically charged in the case. Judge Brnovich stated during her ruling that the references to child sex trafficking made by prosecutors during opening statements and by government witnesses “is something I can’t overlook and will not overlook”. Before the trial began, Judge Brnovich decided that she would allow evidence of sex trafficking, but prosecutors were not permitted to go into detail about the abuse suffered by victims. However, after one victim testified about being raped multiple times, Judge Brnovich stated that “It seemed the government abused that leeway.” A new trial has not yet been scheduled, however a status hearing is scheduled for October 5, 2021.
Backpage.com is just one of multiple websites that have faced legal issues this year due to allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse being facilitated through their platform. In June of this year, 34 women filed a lawsuit against MindGeek, the parent company of PornHub, for violations of sex trafficking and child pornography laws. Similarly, the Supreme Court of Texas ruled this summer that three human trafficking victims could move forward with their statutory human trafficking claims against Facebook. It is critical that these websites are held accountable for the role they play in sex trafficking. Backpage, PornHub, and Facebook are not above the law. These criminal and civil proceedings are a major step in holding online networks responsible.
The CSE Institute is disheartened to see the matter against the founders of Backpage further delayed based on the mistrial ruling. However, we look forward to seeing the matter retried in the near future. The CSE Institute will provide updates as they become available.