Defendants in high-profile criminal and civil cases are increasingly using the Internet in an attempt to influence the public, the media and even potential jurors.

From simple discussion groups to ultra-slick multimedia shows, the sites are giving unprecedented message control to those who stand to lose their fortune or freedom.

“Is it a trend? Absolutely,” said Richard Levick, a Washington-based litigation consultant who has designed Web strategies for his clients. “We’re going to see a lot more of this into the future. Defendants are going to demand it.”

An Illinois capital case spawned one of the first sites 10 years ago. Lawyers for Girvies Davis, who said he did not commit the 1978 murder that put him on Death Row, built a home page in 1994 to publicize his plea for mercy.

It attracted enormous attention. Media outlets from ABC News to People magazine ran stories on Davis, and Brian Murphy, one of the defense attorneys, said Web surfers sent a deluge of e-mails to then-Gov. Jim Edgar.

“I don’t have any idea whether it had any effect at all, but we didn’t get the outcome we were looking for. Girvies was executed on May 17, 1995,” said David Schwartz, who also represented Davis.

These days, people in trouble don’t even wait for a trial to put their spin online. Martha Stewart mounted a site within a day of her 2003 indictment for stock fraud, updating it frequently with terse statements from her lawyers and flowery notes from her fans.

“I can’t believe that you have to go through this trial, which to me seems pointless,” a typical posting read. “However, I honestly believe that the government wants to incriminate you for senseless reasons just because you have a lot of money.”

Though Stewart’s page was meant to shape publicity, others are designed to attract it. Eleven Kuwaitis held at Guantanamo Bay as unlawful combatants in the war on terrorism have a Web site that uses sophisticated programming tricks to lure browsers.

Levick’s firm, which represents the Kuwaitis, hired Canadian advertising agency Nekouda Creative to “optimize” the site. Every day, the agency looks for news that could tie into the detention, trying to figure out what Internet search terms the public might be using.

It then makes “pay per click” deals with the search engine Google, so that when someone enters a phrase or name such as “Alberto Gonzales”–the U.S. attorney general who faced questions about Guantanamo during his confirmation hearing–the Kuwaitis’ page appears near the top of the list of sponsored links.

Such a service can cost $6,000 or more per month, but Levick said it has paid off handsomely.

“Now half of the largest newspapers in the country are editorializing on behalf of their position,” he said.

Other sites are far more modest–portals created by supporters who sometimes have little connection to the accused.

More here.