Richard Ruelas, Arizona Republic Published 2:08 p.m. MT June 30, 2020 | Updated 2:10 p.m. MT June 30, 2020
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The trial for the former executives of Backpage, whom the government contends used the classified advertising website to facilitate and profit off prostitution, has been pushed back to next year because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The criminal trial of Michael Lacey and James Larkin, two former executives who oversaw a chain of alternative weeklies that included Phoenix New Times and the Village Voice of New York, had been scheduled for August.
U.S. District Court Judge Susan Brnovich, in a ruling filed Tuesday, moved the trial to January, said, “The Court feels that it cannot ensure the health and safety of all trial participants at this time.”
Among the reasons Brnovich cited was the sheer number of people that would be in the courtroom.
Besides Lacey and Larkin, the case involves four other defendants. Some are represented by more than one attorney. Lacey, for example, is represented by nine attorneys, according to the federal court docket.
Preliminary hearings over the past few months have had lawyers spread out across multiple tables in the downtown Phoenix federal courtroom. Some took seats in the gallery.
Brnovich, in her order, wrote that with the number of prosecuting attorneys, defendants, their attorneys and jurors, there would likely be 40 people in the courtroom.
Brnovich also expressed concerns about witnesses that must travel into Arizona, a state that has been seeing a spike in COVID-19 cases. Brnovich said such travel was “fraught with risk.”
Attorneys for Lacey had filed a request to delay the trial on May 29, citing the risk of the novel coronavirus. The disease had mushroomed in Sun Belt states, including Arizona, throughout late spring and entering summer.
The government, in a reply filed with the court, suggested several measures that could be taken to allow the trial to proceed.
One suggestion was using the Special Proceedings Courtroom on the first floor of the Sandra Day O’Connor federal court building. That courtroom, used for ceremonial proceedings such as citizenship ceremonies, has high ceilings and an upstairs viewing gallery, the government wrote in its filing.
The government also suggested that clear shields could be installed around the witness stand to allow people to testify without wearing masks.
In a filing in late June, Lacey’s attorneys cited the ever-increasing numbers in Arizona, magnifying their safety concerns.
“Defendants believe that a twelve-week, multi-defendant, hundred-plus witness trial is not the right vehicle for the Court to begin experimenting with conducting trials during a pandemic,” the reply said.
Lacey, Larkin and the other Backpage employees were arrested in March 2018. The government also seized and shut down the classified advertising website.
The 100-count indictment the government filed outlined a conspiracy among the executives and employees to court prostitutes and pimps to advertise on the website. The indictment also accused the executives of laundering money by using cryptocurrency and other methods.
The Backpage website was an outgrowth from the literal back page of classified advertisements on printed editions of the tabloid newspaper. Although Backpage hosted classified ads for sofas and jobs, the majority of traffic on the site came from ads for adult services, often listed under escorts.
The government accused the website of intentionally courting the prostitution business and working with pimps to alter the wording in advertisements to keep up a patina of deniability that Backpage knew what the ads were really for.
Cindy McCain on April 6, 2018, lauded the indictment of one of Backpage’s co-founders, Michael Lacey. Arizona Republic
Other states had attempted to prosecute Backpage, but the website was able to defend itself using a provision of the federal law known as the Communications Decency Act. That law said that websites that hosted writings by others could not be held responsible for that content.
The law shielded a restaurant review site, like Yelp, from libel lawsuits over negative reviews posted by users. The law was allowed websites to take down comments or postings deemed offensive without being held liable for all that was posted.
Backpage, in previous proceedings, had successfully argued that since it merely hosted the ads on its site, it was not responsible for their content.
The federal government, though, in this indictment, said it had amassed evidence, including internal emails, that showed that Backpage employees and executives knew that prostitution was being conducted on its website and took steps to continue its growth.
That section of the Communications Decency Act has come under fire from President Donald Trump, who issued an executive order in May asking his administration to consider regulations limiting its scope.
That move came after Twitter flagged some of Trump’s postings as being factually questionable.
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