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Michael Jackson Web site ignites debate

Police mugshot of Michael Jackson.
Police mugshot of Michael Jackson.

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LOS ANGELES, California (Reuters) -- California prosecutors took the unusual step of setting up a Web site on the Michael Jackson case to alleviate a media frenzy and, in doing so, triggered a debate on use of the Web within the legal community.

Some legal experts said that posting documents detailing the criminal charges against the 45-year-old entertainer was a breakthrough for public access. Others countered that it would undermine the spirit of the law and court proceedings, creating even more of a circus-like atmosphere.

Over the last five years, the Web has often been used to spin the views of one side or another in sensational civil cases, like the Microsoft class-action case.

But lawyers and law professors said it was rare for a governmental prosecuting attorney's office to set up a Web site devoted entirely to a particular criminal case.

Many said they expect it to become a trend, and, while a specialized Web site appears to be an anomaly in criminal cases, media-hounded prosecutors in other high-profile cases like the Kobe Bryant rape case and the upcoming Scott Peterson murder trial have also put links on their Web sites to documents.

"The Web has been such a driver of information in civil cases, it has really changed defense tactics. The legal battles that now go on over the Web are not insubstantial," said Katrina Dewey, editor of the LA Daily Journal legal newspaper.

"And now, this [trend] just moved it into the criminal arena," she said, referring to the Jackson Web site set up by the Santa Barbara County District Attorney Tom Sneddon at (www.sbscpressinfo.org).

To be sure, loads of court case data has long been available on the Web and the legal profession has changed dramatically with the Web's emergence.

People can stay abreast of changes in the law or government agency regulations by using various Web services, like (www.watchthatpage.com) which collects data from sites a lawyer or anyone might have special interest in.

Lawyers, journalists and the general public can also get news fed to them with software that scans major legal Web sites and legal online newsletters or Web logs, or blogs, for short.

Law-related blogs -- known as "blawgs" -- have sprung up with the rise of the blogging self-publishing trend in general. Popular blawgs include an appellate court site at (www.appellateblog.blogspot.com).

Some law firms create blogs for the sole purpose of making data available to the general public, like the Washington, D.C. firm, Goldstein and Howe, whose popular U.S. Supreme Court blog, SCOTUS Blog, is at (www.goldsteinhowe.com).

There are a variety of specialist legal sites, including Doug Isenberg's Internet and patent technology law site, GigaLaw.com. Nolo Press of Berkeley, California, offers a variety of resources for do-it-yourself lawyers at www.nolo.com.

Other popular court news Web sites include (www.thesmokinggun.com) and (www.crimelibrary.com), both of which are owned by the CourtTV.com television network.

Many U.S. courts also cite decisions, court news, summaries of recent opinions and docket information.

To get familiar with what various federal courts have online, go to (www.uscourts.gov).

But while many law professors said the Internet is a great learning and research tool, some hold more traditional views when it comes to using it as a forum during an ongoing trial.

"Many documents are available online through the courts, but there involves a process in getting them," said William Weston, who is an associate dean and professor of Concord Law School, the nation's first all-online law school where students can earn a law degree wholly via the Internet.

In fact, to most people unfamiliar with legalese, reading documents online is like reading Greek.

In the Jackson case, however, the Web site is specifically designed to be user-friendly and even provides frequently asked questions about the case -- a step considered troublesome by some legal experts.

Weston said he was concerned that people may be compelled to download the documents, editorialize and then spread them further around the Web.

"When you throw details out on the Internet, it diminishes the dignity of the court. It now puts the case in the court of public opinion," said Weston.



Copyright 2003 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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