Michael Lacey, James Larkin, and four other employees of infamous classified site Backpage.com stand accused of many things—facilitating prostitution, laundering money—but sex trafficking is not one of them. Nevertheless, prosecutors made too many references to child sex trafficking in their opening statements, as did their government witnesses on the stand, a judge decided on Tuesday. U.S. District Judge Susan Brnovich ruled that though prosecutors made reference to the site depicting child victims of trafficking in its ads, no one in the Arizona federal case stood accused of sex trafficking. The cumulative effect of prosecutors’ insinuations to the contrary, however, was something, “I can’t overlook and will not overlook,” she said.
Lacey, Larkin, and their operators have pleaded not guilty to the charges they do face. The two founders deny that their site published advertisements for sex, and insist the content it did host was moderated and protected under the First Amendment. Authorities claim Backpage.com ignored warnings to halt prostitution ads and offered lucrative deals to sex workers it identified online, generating $500 million in prostitution-related capital over 14 years of operation. Brnovich ruled prior to the trial’s start on Sept. 1 that she would allow evidence of the site’s facilitation of trafficking, but warned prosecutors not to linger on affecting details. “It seemed the government abused that leeway,” the judge said, adding that she didn’t believe the prosecutors committed intentional misconduct. A new trial date is set for Oct. 5.