Internet splash for Fort Dix Six trial

In a U.S. first, the judge wants to make evidence available on a site as soon as it's introduced.

Posted: July 09, 2007

In the technological age, when just about everything ends up on the Internet within seconds, the nation's federal courts have remained quaintly anachronistic.

No television cameras or recording devices are allowed inside. Reporters come armed with the oldest tools of the profession - notepads and pens.

That all could change later this year when the so-called Fort Dix Six are scheduled to go on trial in U.S. District Court in Camden.

The judge handling the case - U.S. District Judge Robert B. Kugler - says he wants to make unprecedented use of the Internet and other technologies during the trial.

The highlight of his endeavor: a public Web site on which all of the evidence would be posted as soon as it's introduced in court.

In this case, that could include video surveillance and audio wiretaps, as well as conversations secretly recorded by FBI informants.

Legal and journalism experts say nothing similar has ever been attempted in the federal judiciary, and they said these moves could be the first step in bringing the federal courts - and the reporters covering them - into the multimedia world.

"It sounds audacious and sensible at the same time," said Richard Lavinthal, a legal public relations consultant. "It's really what the Internet was meant for. It's a pure information medium, and I really tip my hat to Judge Kugler."

Lavinthal, a former spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in New Jersey during the tenures of Samuel Alito and Michael Chertoff, created the first Web site for federal prosecutors in the mid-1990s.

Kugler said he hoped the Fort Dix trial Web site, which has been created and attached to the U.S. District Court of New Jersey's Web page, will save court employees time answering phone calls from the public. The court plans to post information of every kind, including notices of hearings, rules for the court, and even suggestions for parking and dining in Camden.

While using the Internet in this way is hardly a new concept, few federal cases have been large enough or drawn enough outside interest to require online help to manage them.

The Fort Dix case, though, has six defendants and their families, and potentially hundreds of locally interested spectators, including families and personnel at Fort Dix, the de facto victims.

The case, with its loaded terminology of terrorism, jihad and al-Qaeda influences, also has drawn international headlines, and a large media contingent is sure to cover the trial.

Five of the six defendants - brothers Dritan, Shain and Eljvir Duka, Serdar Tatar, and Mohamad Schnewer - were charged with plotting a paramilitary attack on Fort Dix. The sixth, Agron Abdullahu, was charged with helping to supply some of the defendants with guns. Prosecutors said they were inspired by jihadist videos.

Kugler said he used the federal trial of Zacarias Moussaoui, the so-called 20th hijacker in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, for guidance. In that case, evidence was made available the morning after it was introduced in court, but it was given to just one reporter responsible for distributing it to the rest of the media.

Kugler told the lawyers he wanted to go even further, making evidence available to everyone simultaneously.

"I've had no real experience - I don't think anyone has - with that level of technology," said Shain Duka's attorney, Mike Riley.

Riley has tried two local cases carried on Court TV, and he said the presence of cameras had no effect on the performances of the lawyers. He said he didn't think Kugler's plan would have any effect either.

"If it helps people get the whole story, I don't know how you can be critical of it," he said. "I think conventional wisdom has to be thrown out the window with this case. It's going to be so closely watched."

Schnewer's attorney, Rocco Cipparone, said his only "potential concern" was that posting the evidence could make it easier for a juror to hear about the case outside the courtroom.

"Look, we're in the electronic age," he said. "As long as it's not disturbing to the jurors, I don't think it's going to be a problem."

Kugler also said he planned to let reporters use the courtroom's wireless Internet access. A media room with a running video feed of the trial and wireless Internet service also would be available.

That would allow journalists to publish real-time blog reports on the trial. With the instant availability of evidence, readers of blogs could follow the trial as if they were in the courtroom.

"In my mind, it should be happening at every city council meeting, every government meeting," said Jeff Jarvis, an associate professor at City University of New York's Graduate School of Journalism and a blogger at buzzmachine.com. "The more sunshine, the better."

He said bloggers were given press credentials to cover a federal case for the first time this year at the Lewis "Scooter" Libby trial. The blog firedoglake.com provided live coverage that many media outlets relied upon, Jarvis said.

He said blogging public events like trials leads to "networked journalism," in which interested readers peruse documents online, suggest ideas, provide tips, and correct mistakes.

"I think it potentially changes the way trials get covered because there'll be a lot more eyeballs on the documents," Jarvis said. "If you work together with others who are looking at this stuff, you might get deeper, richer stories . . . than you would out there as a lone practitioner."

Kugler doesn't seem to be interested in breaking barriers or setting precedents. He said the technology was available to help manage this unwieldy case, so why not use it?

"I just wondered why it couldn't be done," the judge said. "We're here to serve the public, and this is a better way to serve the public."

Nevertheless, Lavinthal said this was "obviously" a sign of things to come, for both the courts and the media.

"One day, it may drill down to small claims court, for all we know," he said. "In time, you'll be able to get the whole trial on your cell phone."


To read the latest coverage of the Fort Dix Six, and for the link to the U.S. District Court Web site for the trial, go to http://go.philly.com/fortdix


Contact staff writer Troy Graham at 856-779-3893 or tgraham@phillynews.com.

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