Judge declares mistrial in Backpage prostitution case where teen claims she was raped

Judge declares mistrial in Backpage prostitution case where teen claims she was raped
Six people, including the founders of the online classifieds business, were accused of facilitating prostitution and money laundering

A federal judge in Arizona has declared a mistrial in the case against six former employees of the lucrative online classifieds platform Backpage, who were accused of facilitating prostitution and money laundering through the site. US District Judge Susan Brnovich held that prosecutors had made too many references to child sex trafficking as they argued their case, even though none of the six people on trial were accused of that crime, prejudicing the jury as a result.

Prosecutors mentioned trafficking in their opening statements, and various witnesses mentioned the subject as well, something the judge said she “can’t overlook and will not overlook.”

“If the government can prove that the defendants … knowingly facilitated prostitution, then they will be punished. But it should be done correctly,” she added.

Last week, the case featured emotional testimony from Jessika Svendgard, who said that after running away as a teenager, she and a series of pimps used the site to sell ads for prostitution.

“I would be raped for money,” Ms Svendgard told the court, over objections from defence attorneys. Prior to the trial, it was agreed that prosecutors and their witnesses could show evidence they were trafficked on the site, but not linger for too long on details unrelated to the case. “It seemed the government abused that leeway,” Judge Brnovich said on Monday.

None of the executives in the case are accused of knowing about Ms Svendgard’s specific story, and she admitted that her posts broke the site’s rules about posting graphic photos and sexual solicitations. Ms Svengard previously filed a civil suit against Backpage in Washington, the subject of the film I Am Jane Doe, which was settled out of court.

All six Backpage personnel, including the site’s co-founders Michael Lacey and James Larkin, pleaded not guilty to the prostitution charge, and four did so in relation to the money laundering charge. The two founders have said the site never allowed ads for sex, and that it used a combination of employees and technology to scrub posts from the site which broke the rules.

Backpage made $500 million in prostitution-related revenue alone between its founding in 2004 and 2018, when the site was shut down by the government, according to prosecutors. They accuse the site of ignoring warnings to stop running ads by prostitutes and child trafficking victims, as well as giving free ads to prostitutes and seeking out new clients in the sex work industry.

Backpage’s former marketing director has pleaded guilty to conspiring to facilitate prostitution charges and admitted to being part of a scheme to give sex workers free ads. Backpage’s CEO at the time of its closure, Carl Ferrer, also pleaded guilty in a separate federal case in Arizona, as well as a state money laundering case in California.

A new trial in the Arizona case against the six executives is set for the beginning of October.

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