Reptile Theory

Two weeks after Fosta-Sesta passed, Carl Ferrer appeared in a closed federal courtroom in Phoenix. He pleaded guilty to conspiracy to facilitate prostitution and launder money, surrendered Backpage and its assets, and promised to cooperate with federal authorities.

A day later, the Feds nailed Michael Lacey and James Larkin in Phoenix, charging them and five other Backpagers under long-existing criminal statutes. As many legal experts pointed out, the move suggested that the government never needed Fosta-Sesta to prosecute the pair; the president had yet to even sign it into law by the time the hammer fell.

There is perhaps some poetic justice in the fact that the criminal conspiracy Backpage proved to be masterminding would end with the conspirators turning on each other. And indeed, Lacey and Larkin never seemed to seriously consider that Ferrer might flip on them.

Other Backpage insiders, however, saw the writing on the wall clearly. As one attorney who worked with Ferrer for almost 20 years said on condition of anonymity: “I think [Ferrer] just chickened out. That’s an awful lot of pressure to put on a skinny white guy. And Jim [Larkin] was never all that nice to him.”

The anonymous lawyer further points out that Ferrer never shared Lacey’s and Larkin’s disdain for cops.

Though it is still relatively early, the broad outlines of each side’s strategy are clear. If this case reaches a jury, the government will likely argue that the end justifies the means—that sex trafficking and prostitution generally are so abhorrent that the government had to do away with Backpage, protected speech and all.

Those close to the government’s legal team have said on the record prosecutors plan to employ what trial lawyers call “reptile theory,” tapping into the jury’s primitive instincts, arguing that Backpage constituted nothing short of a public danger and that only by convicting the defendants will the community be made safer.

They will tell the grisly tales set forth in the indictment’s 17 victim summaries, in much the same way we have tried to do on this blog. By revealing the graphic details of the harm they encouraged, prosecutors will clearly show Lacey and Larkin to be the calculating profiteers they are; outlaws who refused to honor the reasonable requests of law enforcement because their bottom line might take a hit.

We here at the blog share the view of the federal authorities. We believe the defendants’ demonstrated indifference to the plight of trafficking victims will convince any reasonable jury.

The defense strategy is equally clear, if decidedly flimsy. Lacey and Larkin will offer overblown arguments in defense of what they regard as ‘low-value speech’. They will challenge government experts who assert that the mountain of evidence they have (Backpage ads, internal admissions of guilt, etc.) is sufficient to suggest illegal transactions.

Backpage has been exposed for what they have been from the beginning – a criminal organization profiting from human misery. The only hope Lacey and Larkin, and their cabal of yes-men underlings like Tony Ortega, have of keeping themselves from facing the music is to convince a jury that the clear evidence of their guilt is not to be believed because, in their warped, narcissistic thinking, their ‘First Amendment freedom’ to sell other human beings trumps all.

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