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Web Opens Access in High Profile Case
U.S. v. Zacarias Moussaoui may have been one of the most publicly
accessible high-profile trials of modern times. From the beginning of the case
in 2001 until the current day, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District
of Virginia has maintained a section on its website for the Moussaoui
case. Anyone can access a list of pleadings, orders, and opinions filed in
the case and, except for pleadings and orders under seal, the full text of
documents. Anyone can be notified by e-mail alerts when documents are filed, and
any member of the media can be notified when media advisories are issued in the
case. Throughout the duration of the trial, information was readily available on
how to attend. In this case, the number of attendees was unlike any other, given
the national and international interest.
A Seat at the Trial
In August 2002, shortly before the criminal trial had been expected to begin
in the Alexandria courthouse of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District
of Virginia, Congress passed Public Law 107-206. The law permitted "victims of
crimes associated with the terrorist acts of September 11 to watch trial
proceedings," and directed the trial court to order closed circuit televising of
the proceedings to convenient locations determined to be "reasonably necessary,
for viewing by those victims."
Since victims were defined, in part, as individuals or their family members
who suffered direct physical harm as a result of the terrorist acts that
occurred in New York, Pennsylvania, and Virginia on 9-11, it was clear neither
the Alexandria courtroom, nor one single courthouse location, would accommodate
everyone who might want to view the proceedings.
In addition to designating a separate overflow courtroom in the Alexandria
courthouse, presiding Judge Leonie M. Brinkema (E.D. Va.) designated remote
viewing locations at federal courthouses in Boston, Massachusetts; Central
Islip, Long Island and New York City, New York; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; and
Newark, New Jersey. Closed circuit television feeds transmitted the proceedings
to each location throughout the trial, from the opening statements, all the way
through to sentencing. Staff at the Administrative Office coordinated everything
from the transmission of the encrypted signal to the issuing of credentials to
qualified victims and their family members who wished to attend.
The law gave Judge Brinkema the discretion to "control the manner,
circumstances, or availability of the broadcast where necessary to control the
courtroom or protect the integrity of the trial proceedings." She issued a trial
conduct order that all remote sites would be considered extensions of the
Alexandria courtroom and that the same rules of conduct would apply. "In
particular, no talking, eating, drinking, chewing gum, or other distracting
behavior will be permitted," read the order, which also banned electronic
devices of any kind.
"We wanted people to understand that they were attending a trial, even though
it's on television," said Edward Adams, who was the district's public
Within the Alexandria courthouse itself, two courtrooms were open to members
of the public who wished to follow the proceedings. One was the so-called "live"
courtroom, and the other a courtroom across the hall with a closed circuit
video-feed of the proceedings screened on three 50-inch plasma television sets.
Between the two rooms there were a total of 160 seats.
Most of the seats in the "live" courtroom were reserved, with 32 for the
press alone, according to Adams, who coordinated the arrangements.
"Initially, when we thought we were going to trial in the fall of 2002," said
Adams, "we laid down a set of rules for media organizations. If they were
willing to attend the trial every day, we would give them a reserved seat. At
that time, 75 news organizations and sketch artists were willing to work under
Fast forward to late 2005, with the trial set to begin in early 2006—and Mr.
Moussaoui no longer representing himself—and that number fell to 32. All the
major U.S. media were represented, including broadcast networks, cable news, and
the major U.S. newspapers. There were a number of foreign press represented,
including Al-Jazeera, and many from the French media (Mr. Moussaoui is a
French citizen) including Agence France-Presse, Le Monde, and Radio
Eight seats in the spectator gallery were reserved for members of the
prosecution team and eight for the defense team. Two representatives from the
French Embassy had reserved seats, and there was a reserved seat for a
representative from the Department of Justice, whose responsibility it was to
ensure that classified information did not become public during the course of
the trial. Eight seats were allocated on a daily basis by the Victim Witness
Unit of the U.S. Attorney's Office for victims of 9-11 and family members.
Finally, approximately 14 seats in the live courtroom and all 80 seats in the
overflow courtroom were available on a first-come, first-served basis to any and
According to Adams, attendance varied greatly during the course of the trial
but seldom dipped below 100. And despite the number of reserved seats, members
of what he called the "true public," people with no connection to the case or
the justice system, found seats.
Evidence Seen Around the World
Approximately 1,200 pieces of evidence admitted during the trial are now
available to anyone anywhere in the world with access to the Internet. Their
circuitous trip to the Web, however, began with an appeal.
A consortium of media organizations appealed to the Fourth Circuit the trial
court's decision not to make trial evidence public until after the trial's
conclusion. The Circuit gave the media a partial win by agreeing that the trial
exhibits were public records. But, during the trial, the court had to provide
public access only to exhibits that had been "published in full" to the jury.
According to Adams, this meant that if a photograph was displayed to the jury on
the courtroom's electronic evidence system, that photograph had to be made
available to the media. However, if six minutes of a 12-minute videotape were
played, that piece of evidence did not need to be provided until the end of the
While the trial was in progress, the party introducing evidence published to
the jury provided Adams with a copy—be it a piece of paper, a photograph, or a
videotape. For example, if a knapsack came into evidence, a photograph was
provided of the knapsack. These exhibits were posted, during the course of the
trial, by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press to its website.
"If it was a video or audiotape," relates Adams, "I handed it over to the
pool television producer for the networks, whose responsibility it was to
transmit it to the rest of the media."
Once the trial concluded, however, the court faced the responsibility of
providing public access to all the evidence—video and audio tapes, photographs,
documents, and objects.
"The court felt," Adams recalls, "that the most efficient way to do that was
to place them on the Internet. That way, everybody all over the world could
The Internet would provide maximum public access but also the most efficient
access. There was no need to visit the clerk's office to look through exhibits;
anyone could visit the website. On July 31, 2006, the district court posted
copies of all 1,202 exhibits admitted into evidence during the trial, with the
exception of seven that are classified or otherwise remain under seal. The
website can be accessed at www.vaed.uscourts.gov/notablecases/moussaoui/index.html.
"To my knowledge," said Adams, "this is the first time this has ever been
done in a federal criminal case."
United States v. Zacarias Moussaoui began in 2001 and culminated in
2006, after nine days of jury selection, 24 days of evidence and arguments, and
10 days of jury deliberation. On May 4, 2006, the defendant was sentenced to
life in prison without possibility of release. Days later, a notice of appeal
The Eastern District of Virginia continues to update its web pages with any
post-trial motions or orders. The district's website notes that documents filed
in connection with the appeal will be posted on the website of the U.S. Court of
Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.