Oklahoma Trial: No Lights, No Cameras, More Action

Move over Court TV, make room for the latest way to follow blockbuster trials gavel-to-gavel.

by / June 30, 1997
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" . "As a result of limited seating and enormous media demand, we were asked to bid on providing electronic distribution of the transcripts, which would become the official record of the trial," explained Martin Steinburg, CEO of PubNETics. "Once we were awarded the contract, we decided as an added value to put the information up on the Net and make it [widely] available."

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
the format.

"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."

Add this technology to the Web site and users had a dynamic medium. The site contained a number of special features, including a dockets section with an official list of all documents entered into the case -- motions, pleadings, exhibits, etc. -- in sequential order. Each document was linked to the docket list. If a reporter was viewing a transcript and it referred to a motion filed on a particular day, he or she could click on the docket number of the motion and instantly obtain the motion.

Day-to-day updates of the most recent activities were found under the section called "Daily Transcript." Users without a password could read summaries of the day's events.

Most of the major networks -- ABC, NBC, CNN -- used the Web site to obtain transcripts. "At first there were a few technical problems," said Nicholson, "but they've done a good job and been real responsive in taking care of them. You have to remember they're dealing with a tremendous amount of information and are having to spend a lot of time scanning and indexing it. It's a phenomenal system. I think they're onto something here and they should do this for every major trial."

Steinburg -- interviewed during the trial -- said many other organizations are interested in his service. "The impact of this trial is huge," he said. "It's a trial within a trial. On one hand, it's a trial about Timothy McVeigh; on the other hand, it's a trial about the FBI lab's reliability. There are a lot of interested parties in this thing -- think tanks, right-wing groups, law schools, libraries. There's a huge frenzy and everybody wants information. The transcripts are the only accurate way to obtain that information and we've got them."

Those obtaining transcripts paid $749 a month and $1 per page. In addition, anyone could download daily transcripts with a credit card and the PubNETics viewer for $46 and $1 per page. The weekly CD-ROM was available for $149 a week for monthly subscribers and started at $695 a week for non-subscribers.

According to a company spokeswoman, the PubNETics trial site will stay on the Web, and the company expects to handle transcripts of the Terry Nichols trial as well.

Reprinted with permission of "California Computer News" (CCN). Michelle Gamble-Risley is the publisher and editor in chief of CCN. E-mail: .