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Creating the Lockerbie Trial Families Project Web-site

Donna E. Arzt1, Syracuse University

For the past fifteen months, a team of Syracuse law school faculty, students, and information technology specialists has been designing, implementing, and maintaining a web-site for the sole purpose of informing the families of the 270 victims of the Pan Am 103 bombing about developments in the Lockerbie criminal trial, which began on May 3 in a high-tech Scottish courtroom in the Netherlands. The Office for Victims of Crime (OVC) in the U.S. Department of Justice is providing funding and coordination for a wide array of services to assist the victim families throughout the trial process. While OVC funds are being used to send two members of each family to observe the trial for one week, the majority of the families are from North America and cannot get to Holland for long periods of time. Moreover, many of them distrust the media accounts of the trial and the numerous private web-sites about the case.2 Hence, the need for an official source of reliable, frequently updated information for a group of close to 650 known victim relatives who live in a total of 21 countries.

While I would like to offer readers of JURIST an opportunity to tour the web-site, it is password-protected, accessible only to the victims family members and a small group of others designated by the Justice Department. The most I can do is show the welcome message and, later in this column, the navigation bar and background image which anchor each main page on the site:

Why Syracuse? Why passwords?

Syracuse University has had a long-term relationship with the Lockerbie case and with the victim families. Thirty-five of the passengers on flight Pan Am 103 were undergraduates in the university痴 semester-abroad program in London in the fall of 1988 when they purchased discount tickets from Heathrow to JFK to return home four days before Christmas. The university now maintains an annual Lockerbie Scholarship program for students from the Scottish town where the explosion killed eleven people on the ground, along with Remembrance Scholarships for 35 senior honors students. Memorial services are held on campus every year and commemorations are observed at the Place of Remembrance monument at the entrance to the campus. As Tom Harris, the British Consul General in New York, said at a recent ceremony at the campus monument, the university and the town of Lockerbie together represent "the most remarkable example of two bereaved communities coming together."

Shortly before the tenth anniversary of the bombing, I created a 迭emembering Lockerbie page on the web-site of the Syracuse University College of Law痴 Center for Global Law and Practice, which I direct. This came to the attention of the families, who in turn mentioned it to the Justice Department痴 Office for Victims of Crimes. (Although the two Libyan defendants are being prosecuted by Scottish authorities, the bombing of a U.S. commercial carrier is also a violation of federal U.S. law, so OVC is involved.) In the late spring of 1999, OVC contacted Dean Daan Braveman, inquiring if the law school would be interested in applying for a grant to operate a web-site for all 270 of the Lockerbie families (not merely the Syracuse 35 and not merely the Americans) before, during and for some duration after the criminal trial -- which at the time was scheduled to begin in August 1999. Asked by the Dean to direct a web-site team, I was honored to do so and intrigued by the challenge.3 We called both the web-site and the team the Lockerbie Trial ~ Families Project.

OVC痴 statutory mandate requires that the privacy of federal crime victims be protected, which in part accounts for the security measures on the Project web-site. The Scottish Crown Office and Scottish High Court of the Justiciary view the password-protected web-site as a way to expedite the flow of confidential information about trial developments to the families. They were particularly concerned that the media atmosphere surrounding this most sensational of trials would undermine the traditional formal dignity of Scottish criminal process. These restrictions meant that we could not provide trial commentary to the media, because it would be impossible to avoid compromising information that only our staff was given for secure posting on the web-site.

Shortly after the trial began, the Court decided that it would sell the daily transcripts to the public, though they are still only available in electronic form on our web-site. We have also been authorized to answer a limited range of questions from the press and to circulate a comparative law essay, 迭eflections on Scottish Trial Procedures, adapted from a version that I wrote for the families to read on the web-site.

Mission, Design and Content

As we've indicated on the web-site: "The Project team understands its mission as serving as 'interpreter of the trial' in order to translate it, so-to-speak, from Scottish legalese into 'lay-person-ese.' As part of an academic institution, the team members are not advocates for any partisan viewpoint about the trial, but instead are dedicated to providing an accurate, comprehensive and objective overview of the trial, along with other aspects of the Pan Am 103/Lockerbie case which the families are interested in." Because the majority of the web-site audience is Americans, wherever possible we use American English and analogize Scottish law procedures and concepts to those familiar to viewers of "The Practice" and "Law and Order" if not also Court TV.

Our first concern in designing4 the web-site痴 layout was that it be user friendly and easily navigated by a wide range of persons, some of whom had never used the internet before, let alone a computer. (Indeed, we致e since learned that some families bought their first computer for this very purpose.) We also wanted the site to evoke a safe and calming atmosphere for the users, who have lived through almost twelve years of tragedy and frustration. We deliberately avoided posting that overused image of the aircraft痴 crashed nose cone and instead incorporated a photograph of the town of Lockerbie, which the families have a strong, even positive tie to. A faded town image sits at the bottom of each page of the site (see end of this column). Here is a reproduction of the navigation bar at the top of a typical page:

Overall, the content of the site tends to fall into the following categories:

  • Legal documents and information about the on-going criminal trial, as well as the earlier civil and international litigation involving Pan Am and Libya, including materials generated by the Scottish Court in the Netherlands (daily transcripts) or written by our Project team (including daily and weekly summaries of trial developments, analyses of procedures and evidentiary rules, and identifying information about the judges, lawyers, defendants, and witnesses);
  • Information about travel and other services for the families, as provided by OVC;
  • Official messages for the families from OVC, the Scottish Crown (prosecution) office, the Scottish police, the U.S. State Department, etc.;
  • Interactive sections, including a message board (using O坦eilly痴 WebBoard software) for the families to use among themselves, and a Question and Answer form for contacting us; and
  • Relevant links to the media痴 Lockerbie pages or search engines that we pre-programmed; a Scottish legal glossary and other background on matters such as Scottish criminal law, counter-terrorism, aviation security, and the countries of Scotland, Holland, and Libya.

Posting Procedure

Our Project team consists of myself (whose teaching load has, by the grace of our administration, been reduced to half for the duration of the Project), a part-time Associate Director (10 hours per week) who practices criminal law in the city of Syracuse, two 3L students who serve as Research Associates and five other students who serve as Research Assistants (5 to 15 hours per week each), along with the part-time efforts of two staff members from the College of Law痴 InfoTech Department, plus the part-time services of a faculty secretary. In addition, our need for support reaches from time to time into almost all parts of the school痴 administration, from the development office to the furnishings and refreshments coordinator.

For each day of court proceedings, we post a summary of the trial transcript, as well as zipped and PDF versions of the transcript,5 and provide updates to other parts of the site. Typically, a student drafts a summary (from 5 to 10 single-spaced pages, depending on the proceeding's length and complexity), which is then edited by one of the 3L students and either myself of the Associate Director, or, on occasion, another faculty member. Between student draft and post time, we only have about two to three hours to edit the summaries. We could not operate without our law school痴 in-house web department, which receives posting material not only from us but also from a number of outside agencies in Washington, Scotland and the Netherlands. The Justice Department and these other affiliated offices, as well as individual family members, are in constant contact with us, always - or so it seems -- demanding to know when the most recent update is going to be uploaded.

We use WebTrends software to track monthly usage of the site. From this we know, for instance, that in July we had 828 unique users of the site and 41,704 successful hits on the site. This is compared to the month of April, before the trial began, when we had 656 unique users and 29,965 hits. Between 92% and 98% of the users are from the United States (though that includes foreign subscribers to AOL and other U.S.-based ISPs). The WebTrends analysis also tells us, inter alia, which pages are most and least requested, top paths through the site, and the most active and least active days of the week and hours of the day.

Lessons from the Web

It is probably too soon to draw more than some tentative conclusions from this project. Perhaps the most direct lesson is how time-consuming such an undertaking in fact is. It has obviously been a tremendous learning experience for all the members -- not merely the students -- on the Project team. (At first we assumed that Scottish law would be the most intimidating hurdle, but indeed, we've had to acquire a much wider array of legal knowledge, language proficiency, and technical skills.) While the responsibility has been at times overwhelming, with the web we always know that if we make an error in one of our summaries or other posted documents, it can always -- and almost immediately -- be corrected. While our web-site's audience is relatively small and quite discrete, it is without doubt a critical and vocal group, and so we've also had to learn humility.

The Lockerbie trial is unprecedented in so many ways.6 Without doubt, it will also set future precedents. Among them will most certainly be the use of the world wide web to communicate with the victims of a mass transnational crime who are as widely dispersed as in this case. Law schools are undoubtedly in an ideal position to provide such a service.

1 Professor of Law and Director, Center for Global Law & Practice, Syracuse University College of Law. Director, Lockerbie Trial ~ Families Project. Email: dearzt@law.syr.edu. Homepage: http://www.law.syr.edu/faculty/arzt.

2 Some of these private web-sites include thelockerbietrial.com and the Lockerbie Incident Page. One of the best sites is by the Lockerbie Trial Briefing Unit from the University of Glasgow School of Law. See also Yahoo痴 Pan Am Lockerbie Trial page.

3 I have taught International Criminal Law and in my International Law course I cover the Lockerbie litigation in the International Court of Justice. My own personal connection to the case is that December 1988 was the end of my first semester of teaching at Syracuse. Like so many others, I still remember exactly where I was when I first heard that 35 of our undergrads had died in the explosion.

4 The site was designed by Wonil Suh, who at the time was a graduate student in Syracuse University's School of Information Studies, and is maintained by Patrick Sauter, the web administrator of the Syracuse University College of Law.

5 Originally, the transcripts were sent to us by email, but we now use an FTP process that is more secure and reliable.

6 From the running list of "firsts" which we maintain on the web-site: "The Lockerbie trial has been said to be: 1) the first time that the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency has provided documentary evidence to a foreign court, and the first time that it has permitted a former intelligence source to testify in a trial on foreign soil; 2) the first time that LiveNote (http://www.livenote.com) software has been used in a Scottish court to produce simultaneous transcripts; 3) the largest mass murder in Scottish legal history; 4) the first time a Scottish court has sat abroad; 5) the first time in Scottish legal history that serious criminal charges have been tried without a jury; 6) the most expensive and possibly the longest trial in Scottish legal history, employing the largest prosecution and investigation team without even including US Department of Justice personnel; 7) the first time that the United Nations Security Council has pressured a state, through economic sanctions, to surrender its nationals for trial abroad; 8) the first time that a national civilian court has ever conducted an entire criminal trial in the territory of another sovereign country; and 9) held in what is quite possibly the most secure and most high-tech courthouse ever built."

© 2000 by Donna E. Arzt. All rights reserved.
The views expressed in this column are solely those of its author, and do not reflect those of JURIST, its Advisory Board, its staff or its host institutions.

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