Anti-Porn Crusader Sharon Cooper Testifies for Prosecution in Lacey/Larkin Trial, Defense Moves for Mistrial

Sharon Cooper
Dr. Sharon Cooper, at a U.S. Senate hearing in July 2019. (Screenshot via C-SPAN)
Shortly after anti-porn/anti-sex work activist, Dr. Sharon Cooper, testified for the prosecution in the Lacey/Larkin trial, defense attorneys moved for a mistrial over her inflammatory statements.

Defense attorneys for journalists Michael Lacey and Jim Larkin moved for mistrial in federal court in Phoenix on Monday, following the testimony of government witness Dr. Sharon Cooper, an anti-porn, anti-sex work crusader, whom prosecutors presented to the court as an expert in sex trafficking.

According to the website for the National Center on Sexual Exploitation (NCOSE), an anti-porn group once known as Morality in Media, Cooper has lectured before the group, likening the effects of pornography on the brain to that of cocaine and linking the viewing of pornography to violence, two pernicious and much-debunked myths.

(Note: Xbiz news editor Gustavo Turner first reported the Cooper-NCOSE connection on Twitter.)

Under questioning by prosecutor Reggie Jones, Cooper consistently conflated voluntary, adult sex work with sex trafficking, despite strenuous objections from attorney Joy Bertrand, who represents one of Lacey and Larkin’s co-defendants.

Bertrand  filed a motion on Sunday asking for Judge Susan Brnovich to preclude Cooper’s testimony, which Bertrand anticipated would be “highly inflammatory” and create “new, evidentiary rabbit holes for the jury . . . to fall down regarding third-party conduct.”

Brnovich denied the motion to block Cooper, or, in the alternative, to hold a hearing to determine Cooper’s qualifications to testify. The judge allowed Cooper’s testimony to proceed, but limited it to what Jones called the “vernacular” of “prostitution and sex trafficking,” and the supposed role of online platforms in trafficking.

In reality, those two offenses are very different, the former being a nuisance crime that the majority of the public believes should be legalized, and the latter being a heinous crime involving children in commercial sex, or adults coerced into the sex trade.

Neither Lacey, Larkin or their four co-defendants are charged with sex trafficking or child sex trafficking. Rather, they face up to 100 counts regarding conspiracy, money laundering and the facilitation of misdemeanor state prostitution offenses in violation of the U.S. Travel Act.

But so far, the government is ignoring its own indictment, offering witnesses, such as the mother and daughter from Friday, who testified largely about sex trafficking and child sex trafficking, red herrings meant to incense the jury and have them react to emotion rather than facts.

Cooper and “DATY”

Cooper didn’t require much prompting. With an open-ended question from Jones, she would head off into a lecture about how classified ad sites like Backpage “promote and increase victimization.” She also claimed, anecdotally, that the “lion’s share” of the 100 or so sex trafficking victims she had examined had been “sold on Backpage.”

“It is clear that [prosecutors are] going to run up to the line and step over it.” — defense attorney Joy Bertrand

She also testified about what Jones referred to as the “specific language of sex trafficking victimization,” wherein, according to Jones and Cooper, terms that could easily relate to consensual, unforced adult sex work were mainly about “victims.”

For instance, the words “incall/outcall,” were all about a “buyer” going to a “victim,” or vice versa. Cooper also addressed other terms that could easily involve consensual encounters, such as GFE (Girlfriend Experience), bareback, quickie and Greek (which she defined as “anal sex . . . from the Grecian times”). She even defined one that was new to me: DATY, short for “Dining at the Y,” which refers to oral sex on a woman.

Wait, cunnilingus is connected to sex trafficking?  Who dreamed that up — the Taliban?

Even if you knew nothing of Cooper’s involvement with NCOSE or her crackpot ideas about pornography, the fact she bragged to the court about co-authoring a textbook with Prof. Richard Estes was a red flag the size of China.

Estes was the co-author of a notorious University of Pennsylvania study that created one of the most misused and most debunked sex-trafficking myths ever: that 100,000 to 300,000 children in the U.S. were “at risk” of becoming victims of sex trafficking. The bogus factoid was repeated unquestioningly by numerous major news outlets and helped give rise to what sociologists and others refer to as America’s “moral panic” over sex trafficking.

But during Bertrand’s cross-examination, facts seemed to fail Cooper. She offered no statistics to back up her contention, based on her individual experience with victims, regarding the volume of sex trafficking connected to Backpage.

Nor could she say if Backpage was the most responsive platform to law enforcement inquiries, despite the government knowing the answer to that question is, “Yes.”

Cooper did concede that the terms she discussed with Jones could be used by consensual adult sex workers, and that such workers exist. Though she gave away her game by telling Bertrand that she didn’t like to use the phrase “sex work,” preferring instead to refer to it as “sexual exploitation.”

Ever More Mistrial

During an afternoon break in the testimony, Bertrand moved for mistrial, claiming that the government had not turned over documents pertaining to Cooper’s testimony in other federal courts. The judge denied this motion, saying that the information Bertrand wanted was part of the public record.

But Lacey’s attorney Paul Cambria almost immediately made another motion for mistrial, claiming the government had “obviously prepared this witness” so she would inject “children” and “trafficking” into a case “where there is no charge of trafficking of children.”

Larkin’s attorney Thomas Bienert joined the motion, accusing the government of “beating the drum of sex trafficking” with Cooper and previous witnesses, including Friday’s mother and daughter and California cop Brian Fichtner.

“I have concerns that the government has crossed that line several times, even after I advised the government not to do it at sidebar.” — Judge Susan Brnovich

Bienert said the problem was “snowballing” and that the trial had gone “dramatically off the rails.” He complained that the testimony had “no connection to . . . anything in the indictment,” especially not the 50 adult ads that formed the basis of the allegations.

Bertrand noted that the judge had warned the government previously about going too far with witness testimony, to no avail.

“It is clear that they’re going to run up to the line and step over it,” she said.

Prosecutor Jones claimed that the government was “not beating a dead horse,” but Brnovich seemed skeptical.

“I have concerns that the government has crossed that line several times, even after I advised the government not to do it at sidebar,” Brnovich said.

She particularly expressed “concerns” that the testimony of the daughter from Friday and of Cooper went “well beyond” the scope of the indictment.

As a result, she said she would review a transcript of the day’s testimony and get back to counsel in the a.m.

Generally, Cooper has been a good witness for the prosecution, mainly because her testimony is prejudicial and has nada to do with the actual charges. But she also comes off as grandmotherly, has a welcoming smile and always speaks directly to the jury instead of to her questioner.

Jurors were paying close attention to her. And unless you knew of Cooper’s NCOSE connection, she might seem almost normal.

But the NCOSE version of Cooper is a hardened ideologue and true believer.

Indeed, it’s astounding to me that she was allowed anywhere near the stand. Now it’s a matter of if and how her appearance will be remedied.

ICYMI, please also see:
Paul Cambria Tears Kamala Harris’ Fave Cop a New One on Cross in Lacey/Larkin Trial
and
Lacey/Larkin Defense Rebuts Testimony of Key Federal Witnesses on Cross-Examination

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About Stephen Lemons

Stephen Lemons is an award-winning investigative journalist with more than 20 years of experience covering everything from government corruption to white-supremacist gangs. In addition to Front Page Confidential, his work has appeared in Phoenix New Times, the Los Angeles Times, Salon.com, and the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Report magazine.

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