The differences between the O.J. Simpson murder case and the trial of Timothy McVeigh are startling. The Simpson case played on television and radio, attracting legions of listeners to a soap opera which ran 372 days from jury selection to verdict. The McVeigh case, on the other hand, concluded in a sparse five weeks, and the jury delivered its verdict after only four days of deliberation.
Perhaps some of the credit for a speedy trial can be attributed to restricted media coverage. In short, the court tended to its business undistracted by grandstanding attorneys, juror book deals and hangers-on eager for fame and fortune.
During the McVeigh trial, Shane Nicholson, a reporter with NBC News, explained the system for media coverage. "We're on three different rotations, where one person is sitting in the listening room which seats 115 additional people. This person can only take handwritten notes and cannot use a tape recorder or a listening device or even use a computer. This all has to do with Judge Richard Matsch's character and his feeling on how a court ought to be run. He's very conservative and wants to keep a strong grip on the trial to make sure things don't get out of hand."
While Nicholson is one of the lucky few who got to listen in on the proceedings, there were many other not-so-fortunate reporters and interested parties. The Denver court system needed to effectively disseminate information without compromising the case's integrity. The solution came in the form of technology created by PubNETics, a Denver-based electronic publishing software company.
PubNETics devised a way to publish the transcripts on a Web site called the "Oklahoma City Bombing Trial CyberCourt"
During the McVeigh trial, the transcripts were published twice daily -- once in the morning and once in the afternoon -- within one hour of release. The information was forwarded to a subscriber base via e-mail, the Net and CD-ROMs. Subscribers could obtain the transcripts three different ways: via e-mail in a special format; through a secured password that allowed the documents to be viewed online; or via the Internet by downloading the actual transcripts. The entire Web site was also published once a week on CD-ROM.
As the court reporter typed information into the stenography machine, the data was fed into a PC in another room where it was cleaned up. Once it was fact- and spell-checked, the information was converted to ASCII and sent over a secure link from the federal courthouse to the PubNETics office, where it was run through special authoring software using Structure Pattern Matching Language (SPML) to automate
"SPML is based on a search-and-replace method," said Steinburg. "It sets up a kind of template, and this template understands all pieces of that transcript. We run it through a filter and things like hyperlinks are established. For example, every time Mr. Jones is mentioned, it adds a link to biographical background, etc."
This kind of technology is new to PubNETics -- it was purchased from an Australian company. Technical Director Davin Fifield also came from down under to help implement it in the United States. "The company I came from was really a consulting business with a good product," said Fifield. "It really wasn't cut out for that particular market, so they sold it to Marty [Steinburg], who knew what to do with it."