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September 2006

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This article is in the news archives --- for current news go to the Third Branch News.


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 information officer.

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 those rules."

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 France.

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 all.

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 trial.

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 access them."

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 was filed.

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.