A few minutes with...Edward Adams

Meet the virtual Wizard of Oz behind the federal Web site that displays nearly every exhibit from the trial of Zacarias Moussaoui. Edward Adams, the public information officer for the U.S. District Court in Alexandria, Va., posted copies of 1,202 pieces of evidence. Seven exhibits remain under seal. The site’s launch on July 31 marked the first time a federal court has made so many exhibits from a criminal case available online.

It helped that Adams had a background in online publishing.

Before joining the court in June 2002, he was an online editor for American Lawyer Media in New York City. Federal Computer Week recently spoke to him about the mammoth feat.

What prompted you to embark on this endeavor?

Adams: We got a large number of requests from members of the media for access to the exhibits. We felt that the most efficient way to provide that access was simply to put the exhibits online.

How many people did it take to post all the exhibits online?

Adams: The staff it took to digitize and upload the materials was one person: me. It took three months to get it done.

What challenges did you face in digitizing the material?

Adams: There were a total of 1,202 exhibits, including thousands of pieces of paper. First, I had to take the paper documents and scan them. Some of them were too large or too small to scan…or they weren’t legible when scanned. For those documents, I had to create a Web page that displayed an image of each page of that exhibit in sequence. Finally, I had to convert the video exhibits into a format that could be viewed on a computer and compress those files so they could be more easily downloaded.

What issues did you confront in placing such sensitive material on a public Web site?

Adams: There were no legal issues. These are public documents. These are the same documents that you could see if you came to the courthouse. All that we are doing that is new is we are providing the public and the media access to them online.

Some of the evidence in this case involves images or sounds that some people might find offensive. They are in large part images, video and audio recordings that were taken from the 2001 terrorist attacks and the immediate aftermath. Those items are designated with the warning “Viewer discretion is advised” or “Listener discretion is advised.”

Why haven’t other federal courts provided online access to exhibits from criminal cases?

Adams: You would have to ask them. I would expect that they would say it takes a large amount of human resources to get this done. And they would be right. But in a case that attracted international attention and that was seen by some as a test of whether a member of al Qaeda could receive a fair and public trial in the federal courts, I believe providing this kind of worldwide access to the exhibits sends an appropriate message.

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