The Fastest Terror Trial in the West

| Fri Nov. 5, 2010 6:00 AM EDT

Read Karen Greenberg's previous coverage of the trial of Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, the first Guantanamo detainee to be tried in a civilian court.

Wednesday marked the end of the witness and testimony phase of the trial of Ahmed Ghailani, who stands accused of participating in the bombing of the US Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998. As Judge Lewis Kaplan remarked early in the week, the trial was advancing at "lightning speed," largely due to his insistence that both prosecution and defense stay concise, on point, and efficient. Still, Wednesday's milestone was not as remarkable as a small hearing held on Tuesday, a session that was rife with both intense debate and good humor—the tone Kaplan has set throughout. In the absence of the jury, the defendant, and the gallery of victim observers, the judge and counsel were discussing witnesses—FBI agents and Tanzanian police officials—whom the defense wanted to bring back for purposes of impeaching testimony they had previously given. The defense has tried to assert over and over in cross-examination that the testimony in this trial contradicted what these and other witnesses originally told the FBI. Over the course of nearly four hours, going over the defense's requests "statement by statement," Judge Kaplan reasoned his way through each one, regularly interjecting his thoughts about memory and translation and their impact on this landmark trial.

The problem of memory has plagued this trial from the beginning. As an FBI witness testified on Monday about his 1998 search of Ghailani's residence, the jury repeatedly heard, "I have a vague recollection…I don't recall…I don't remember…I do not know…. I am searching my memory." It has been a refrain echoed by witness after witness, both American and Tanzanian. But try as defense attorney Peter Quijano might to suggest that witnesses were merely "feigning a lack of memory," the judge pointed out that it is just plain difficult to remember the details of events 12 years ago.

Get Mother Jones by Email - Free. Like what you're reading? Get the best of MoJo three times a week.