“I swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth” – a mantra recited dozens of times a week in TV shows and movies. It’s so familiar that its significance can be overlooked. But, when sworn in a court or other official proceeding, it makes everything said afterward either the truth or perjury.
Perjury, the crime of lying under oath, is a serious offense because it can derail the basic goal of the justice system—discovering the truth. Even the famous and the powerful have faced the consequences of perjury, which include prosecution, prison, and impeachment.
Historically, perjury was defined as lying while testifying in court. The law now defines the crime to cover not just trials but also many other proceedings, including grand juries, family law court, bail hearings, Congressional committee hearings, and depositions in civil lawsuits. Sworn statements made to governmental agencies such as the Social Security Administration or in financial affidavits (such as loan applications) are also covered.
It’s also a criminal offense to cause another to commit perjury, called suborning perjury.
What Is Perjury?
A witness under oath commits perjury by making a statement in a court or other proceeding that the witness knows is not true. The statement must be “material” to the subject of the proceeding, meaning that it must have some relationship to the lawsuit, investigation, or inquiry of the proceeding. All parts of this definition are important, so let’s take a closer look at each:
- Perjury only happens under oath. The witness must have vowed to tell the truth to someone who is authorized to administer the oath, such as a judge, notary public, or other official. And, the proceeding must be “competent,” that is, authorized by law. For example, a grand jury that has launched an investigation that is beyond its powers is not a competent proceeding.
- Perjury requires a statement. Silence or a refusal to give a statement is not perjury (but may lead to other charges). In addition to testimony, a statement adopted in the proceeding, as when a witness authenticates a false writing while under oath, is also perjury.
- Intent to mislead. The witness must know that the testimony is false and must give it with the intent to mislead the court.
- Only false statements are perjury. False testimony that results from confusion, lapse of memory, or mistake is not perjury. Conflicts in testimony may be perjury if one of the conflicting statements is necessarily false (and prosecutors can prove perjury without proving which one is false).
- Inconsistent statements can lead to perjury. A witness’s testimony is viewed as a whole. So, a witness who claimed he did not remember an event when questioned at one point in testimony, but who clearly recalled aspects of the event when asked later, may have committed perjury. (Inconsistency under oath is what led to Bill Clinton’s impeachment.) But, where a witness’s testimony is inconsistent in a way that is of no consequence in the proceeding, that is not perjury.
- Statement made in court or other proceeding. False statements made outside of official proceedings are not perjury. For example, if a witness lies to a lawyer who is taking notes in order to draft an affidavit, the witness has not committed perjury (unless she later signs the affidavit under oath with the false statement in it). Sworn, written statements submitted to courts or government agencies are statements made in a proceeding and subject to perjury laws.
- Only a “material” statement can be perjury. The false statement must be capable of influencing the proceeding – that is, it must have a relationship to the subject of the proceeding. This includes a false statement that would tend to mislead or hamper an investigation. This means that a lie, even under oath, about a subject that is not material to the proceeding is not perjury. For example, falsely bragging that “I never update my Facebook page at work,” while testifying in a case having nothing to do with social networking at work, would not be a likely candidate for a perjury charge.
- A material statement that is superfluous to the outcome may still be perjury. Even where false testimony does not affect the outcome of a case, the lying witness may be prosecuted for perjury. For example, suppose an ex-cop is on trial for his involvement in a gambling operation. Several witnesses have testified to his involvement, but on the stand, he falsely denies any involvement. This denial would be a material statement, even though it arguably did not affect the jury’s finding of guilt (the jury had the other witnesses’ testimony to rely on).
Common Defenses to Perjury
Here are some common defenses to perjury.
Remember, perjury is giving false testimony—saying or writing something that is not true. This means that true statements, even when made to intentionally mislead, are not perjury. For example, where a defendant in a mail fraud case testifies that he did not “send” the fraudulent document because he did not actually put the document in the mailbox himself, he has told the literal truth and has not committed perjury. In such a situation, the prosecutor has to ask further questions (such as, “did you direct someone to drop the document in the mailbox?”) in order to get the defendant to admit to participating in the fraud, or get the defendant to lie about participating.
Recanted or Corrected Statements
Sometimes, witnesses say or write something that they later recant. Whether their change of heart constitutes a legally recognized defense to a perjury charge depends on the law of the state where charges would be brought. If the case were to be brought in federal court, one of two results is possible, courtesy of the two federal laws that concern perjury:
- A person charged under a broad perjury statute (18 U.S.C. §1621) won’t necessarily avoid prosecution even by recanting during the same proceedings where she committed the perjury, but the recantation can be taken into consideration to show that the person did not intend to mislead.
- Someone may be able to avoid eventual prosecution by recanting or correcting the false statement, but must do so during the same proceeding in which it was made; and the false statement must not have “substantially affected” the proceedings. But this only works if the witness is charged under the second, narrower statute (18 U.S.C. §1623). However, by admitting to the prior false statement (in order to take it back), the witness may open herself up to prosecution under the broader statute described above (§1621)! Needless to say, a witness who must decide whether to recant a false statement needs the advice of an experienced attorney (see below).
The “Perjury Trap”
In some cases, the prosecutor will call a defendant solely because the prosecutor knows that he will likely lie under oath, committing perjury, and the prosecutor doesn’t need his testimony for any other purpose. In these cases, a defendant will claim that this has happened and the prosecutor will deny it. Whether or not a prosecutor has actually set this “perjury trap,” this is a hard defense to raise, for two reasons:
- No materiality. For a perjury charge to stick, the lie must be material, as explained above. But where the perjury trap involves asking about something that doesn’t really matter, the lie won’t rise to the level of perjury. So the better course is to claim simply that there’s no materiality.
- The prosecutor’s hopes that the witness will lie aren’t enough to defeat the charge. After all, hoping a witness will lie doesn’t make that witness do so. As long as the questions asked of the witness are related to the issue under investigation or raised in a lawsuit, the prosecutor is not setting a trap, even if the prosecutor harbors a hope that the witness will lie.
Defenses That Aren't Available
Some defenses that you might think will apply will not be available in a perjury prosecution in certain situations. They include:
- Double jeopardy. This defense claims that the defendant is being tried twice, in the same jurisdiction (court), for the same offense. It doesn’t apply when a defendant is being tried for a crime, but then is charged later for perjuring himself during trial. For example, a defendant in a rape case who was acquitted based on DNA evidence but lied under oath about his alibi may still be prosecuted for perjury.
- The limits of immunity. Prosecutors sometimes offer immunity from prosecution to witnesses who themselves are (or could be) subject to criminal charges, but who have important information that would support a case against another, more serious criminal defendant. For example, a low-level accomplice might be granted immunity so that he can testify against a crime syndicate’s boss. But false testimony given after a prosecutor has granted a witness immunity may still be prosecuted as perjury!
How is Perjury Punished?
A person convicted of perjury under federal law may face up to five years in prison and fines. The punishment for perjury under state law varies from state to state, but perjury is a felony and carries a possible prison sentence of at least one year, plus fines and probation. Penalties are increased in relation to how much the perjury interfered with the proceeding. When the perjurer was a witness in his own criminal trial, his sentence for the underlying conviction may also be increased, on the grounds that a lying defendant is one who has a bad character and is not likely to be rehabilitated quickly.
Judges can punish a perjurer who lied under oath to hide or assist a crime in a way that goes beyond the sentence for perjury. That defendant may also be charged as an accessory to the crime he was attempting to hide or assist, if that charge will carry a greater sentence. And a perjurer may even be charged as an accessory to a crime of which he is convicted, if he lied to conceal that crime.
There is no civil remedy for a criminal defendant wrongly convicted based on another’s perjury, nor for a party to a civil lawsuit who loses because of a witness’s perjury.
Consult With an Attorney
As you can see, perjury is a complex crime and can arise in many situations. As with all serious legal problems, be sure to consult a lawyer experienced in criminal law if you have questions about perjury or find yourself investigated for the crime or charged with it. An experienced lawyer can evaluate the strength of the case against you, the viability of any defenses, and your chances for a favorable outcome either through plea negotiations or at trial.