What’s Next for the Backpage Defendants?

What happens next to former Village Voice Media executive editor Michael Lacey remains unclear
As the DOJ decides whether to retry newspaperman Michael Lacey for a third time, new defense motions argue that prosecutorial misconduct in the Backpage case demands either acquittal or a new trial.

UPDATE JAN. 11, 2024: Judge Humetewa has ordered the government to inform the court by Jan. 23 whether or not it intends to retry Lacey on the 84 hung counts.

The following opinion/analysis reflects the views of the author and no one else.

So, What Now?

Since November 16, when the jury in the federal Backpage trial in Phoenix returned a mixed verdict on multiple counts faced by journalist Michael Lacey and four others, the future for those with guilty verdicts hanging over their heads has remained uncertain.

Two defendants escaped legal limbo: Joye Vaught and Andrew Padilla, Backpage employees whom the government prosecuted in hopes of making them testify against the others. But they bravely refused the government’s plea deals, and the jury spared them, finding them not guilty on 51 counts.

Newspaperman Jim Larkin, 1949-2023 (via Wikipedia)

Lacey’s longtime business partner, Jim Larkin, was also a codefendant. He died shortly before the trial, driven to suicide by this nearly six-year-long prosecution by the federal government.

The three remaining defendants — Lacey and two former executives of Backpage’s parent company, Scott Spear and Jed Brunst —  experienced varying levels of pain from the jury’s verdicts.

Regarding Lacey, the jury delivered a guilty verdict on one count of “international concealment money laundering,” a not-guilty verdict on one count, and “no verdict” on 84 other counts, forcing Judge Diane Humetewa to declare a mistrial on the hung counts.

It was the second mistrial granted in this case. The first was declared in 2021 after just three days of testimony due to egregious prosecutorial misconduct.

Brunst and Spear caught the brunt of the flack: the jury found Brunst guilty on one conspiracy count and more than 30 money laundering counts; Spear was guilty on 39 counts, including allegations of money laundering, conspiracy, and violations of the U.S. Travel Act.

The jury rendered this hodgepodge of verdicts two days after declaring itself deadlocked on nearly all counts facing the defendants, with the judge giving them an “Allen charge” as a result, essentially ordering them to try harder to reach a verdict on the remaining counts.

Lacey, Brunst, and Spear have not been remanded into custody. Currently, there are no hearings on the horizon.

As for their future, it’s as clear as mother’s milk.

Multiple factors are in play, such as whether or not the government will seek to retry Lacey on the 84 counts outstanding.

Additionally, there are two important defense motions before federal Judge Diane Humetewa, addressing government misconduct during the trial, as well as other issues: a motion to acquit the defendants, known as a “Rule 29” motion, which argues that the government didn’t prove its case, and a motion asking for a new trial, should the Rule 29 motion fail.

Defense attorneys recently filed three supplements to the oral Rule 29 motion made on Oct. 20, after the prosecution rested its case. There’s one each for Lacey, Spear, and Brunst, and I have linked those documents with the respective names. You can also read the motion to dismiss, here. I will follow up soon with summaries of the arguments.

All of these defense filings discuss substantial issues that could be raised on appeal. Any appeal would follow sentencing. No sentencing dates have been scheduled for Lacey, Brunst, and Spear.

Piccarreta’s Rules

Tucson attorney Mike Piccarreta , a past president of the State Bar of Arizona, has followed the case since its inception. He represented Padilla until forced to withdraw as Padilla’s counsel in 2019, when the government seized money set aside for Padilla’s defense.

It’s worth noting that in addition to seizing nearly all of Lacey and Larkin’s assets, the government seized more than $10 million in defense attorneys’ trust accounts, resulting in court-appointed attorneys for three defendants.

Mike Piccarreta
Former president of the AZ State Bar, Michael Piccarreta, (courtesy, Piccarreta Davis Keenan Fidel)

I reached out to Piccarreta to ask his opinion on how things might proceed.

For instance, if the prosecution wants a retrial, could it seek to have Lacey sentenced before a new trial begins?

He thought this scenario was unlikely.

“It raises a lot more issues than it resolves,” he said. “Theoretically, could they? I haven’t researched it, but my guess is yes.”

He added: “But if they are going to retry him and they want to retry him within the next six months, the smart thing to do would be to [delay] his sentencing until the case resolves completely.”

It’s the judge’s call as to when sentencing takes place.

“If I was the judge on the case and the government wanted a retrial, I wouldn’t do a piecemeal sentencing,” Piccarreta said.

In the meantime, the government could seek sentencing on Brunst and Spear, but Piccarreta said that if the men are sentenced, he believes all three should be released pending appeal.

“They’ve complied with all of their conditions of release,” he said. “These are nonviolent crimes. They are ancient crimes. They relate to Backpage, which no longer is in existence. So, there’s no danger to anybody. And there are super compelling issues [on appeal] . . . there’s no need to incarcerate [them] when there’s at least a possibility the case will get reversed.”

The maximum sentence for a money laundering count is 20 years; for the Travel Act counts, five years max. The sentencing guidelines are complex and involve several factors. An exhaustive pre-sentence report on each man will make a recommendation to the judge about what sentence he will receive.

Of course, should Humetewa order new trials for all three men or dismiss the case with prejudice, these hypotheticals fall by the wayside.

And what about the forfeiture phase of the trial, in which the government is looking to take everything these men own?

The government has signaled that it intends to seek a monetary judgment, in which, according to the rules of federal criminal procedure, “the court must determine the amount of money that the defendant will be ordered to pay.

“I think they need to at least resolve retrial issues, and the judgment of acquittal issues [Rule 29] has to be taken care of first,” Piccarreta said.

“Then that’s going to be appealed, too, so this whole thing is going to be tied up in courts for at least the next three years.”

The asset seizures were an attempt by the government to starve the defendants into submission. The government first seized the assets in 2018 via federal civil courts in California. Proceedings there are on hold pending the outcome of the criminal case.

The fate of Larkin’s estate is uncertain. After his death, the judge dismissed the indictment against him, and he’s no longer a party to the case.

Does Piccarreta think the government will go for a retrial?

“I don’t know what they’re thinking on it, but they’ve invested millions and millions of dollars and thousands of hours of work into a case that should have never been brought, and they didn’t quite get the result that they want,” he said.

But the vindictive nature of the prosecution in this case doesn’t give him a lot of faith in the outcome.

“There’s no real checks and balances on them,” Piccarreta said of the prosecutors. “I don’t expect them to do anything other than go after these people like they’re serial killers, which they’re not.”

Please also read:
Backpage Trial Ends with Precious Little Justice and a Mountain of Misery
and
Prosecution’s Rebuttal in Backpage Trial Presumes the Guilt of Millions

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

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.

2 comments

  1. When is enough, enough? The waste of government money, the persecution of people who meant no harm and lacked any intent and a reluctant government to pursue this prosecution anyway must be considered.

    This is an abuse of process and a government out of control.

    1. Absolutely, direct abuses of First Ammendment to try the innocent for what might become a breach of the rules years later… or not.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *