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Federal judge limits use of hearsay evidence in Guantanamo cases

[JURIST] Judge Reggie Walton of the US District Court for the District of Columbia [official website] issued a ruling [opinion, PDF] Wednesday that severely curtails the federal government's ability to use hearsay evidence in trials against Guantanamo Bay [JURIST news archive] detainees. While in normal criminal and civil cases hearsay is not accepted as evidence unless it meets specific criteria, it has frequently been allowed in terrorism cases because there either was no other evidence or presenting alternative evidence would have been too burdensome. The government had argued that hearsay was broadly permitted by the US Supreme Court's 2004 decision in Hamdi v. Rumsfeld [opinion text]. In his opinion, Walton disagreed, holding:

Where the government is unable to produce non-hearsay evidence due to its own administrative or bureaucratic errors or lack of resources to amass such evidence, it cannot rely upon its shortage of resources or its own mistakes as justification for the use of hearsay. And the more significant a fact the government seeks to establish through the use of hearsay is, the heavier its burden will be to justify the Court's consideration of hearsay as a substitute for its non-hearsay alternative.

Though Walton was careful to assert that he had not ruled out hearsay entirely, its use has been curtailed in future cases in his court, and other district judges may follow suit.

Walton's ruling may make it more difficult for the government to prosecuted suspected terrorists, perhaps speeding up the trial and release of some of the remaining Guantanamo detainees. Earlier this week, the Obama administration announced its intent to transfer six detainees [JURIST report] overseas. The administration is also exploring options for detainees who cannot be sent overseas, and, last week, federal and state officials toured a prison in rural Michigan [JURIST report] in anticipation that it could eventually hold Guantanamo detainees. Also last week, federal officials said that terrorism trials for some inmates could be held at a new high-security courthouse in Newport News, VA [Washington Post report] if the Obama administration sends cases to federal courts [JURIST report].

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