Sunday, April 12, 2009

Twitter boosts public access to federal courtrooms

In a victory for news technology in federal courts, a judge is allowing a reporter to use the microblogging service Twitter to provide constant updates from a racketeering gang trial this week.

It's not the first time online streaming has been allowed in courtrooms, but the practice is still rare in the federal system, especially in criminal cases.

A couple of lawyers voiced concern about the possibility that a juror might visit the online site to read the posts from Ron Sylvester, a reporter for the Wichita Eagle, but U.S. District Judge J. Thomas Marten said jurors are always told to avoid newspaper, broadcast and online reports.

"You either trust your jurors to live with the admonishment, or you don't," he said.

People use Twitter to update others on what they're doing or observing. The postings, known as "tweets," are limited to 140 characters and can be sent and received on a mobile phone or computer.

Sylvester has been using Twitter for a year to cover hearings and trials in state courts, but the racketeering trial of six Crips gang defendants that he's covering online this week is his first in federal court.

His courtroom "tweets" from his cell phone have recounted testimony and offered some courtroom color. Among them:

- "Judge Marten is talking to reluctant witness in chambers with a court reporter transcribing the conversation."

- "The witness who was yelling in the hallway earlier has not returned to the courthouse."

- "Defendants are chatting and laughing among themselves."

- "Exhibits are shown electronically. Every juror has a monitor in the box. There is a monitor at each lawyer's table and one for the gallery."


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