Our judicial system is based on an adversarial model where the ultimate goal is to find the truth of an underlying disputed matter. Direct examination, cross-examination, and the rules of evidence assist the judge or jury in determining what happened or what needs to happen. Most legal disputes in America, both civil and criminal, are born when two parties have a different view or opinion of an important issue.
However, there are circumstances when a witness takes an oath in court and lies about a material issue in a case. This is different from the testimony of witnesses that is inconsistent or contradictory. Lying in court is a crime. We call it perjury.
Our contemporary perjury statutes were originally derived from the 9th Commandment – Thou shall not bear false witness.
In the Old Testament, the book of Exodus provides, “You shall not spread a false report. You shall not join hands with a wicked man to be a malicious witness. You shall not fall in with the many to do evil, nor shall you bear witness in a lawsuit, siding with the many, so as to pervert justice, nor shall you be partial to a poor man in his lawsuit.” — Exodus 23:1-2
The brilliant legal scholar, Alan Dershowitz, has written many manuscripts on the issue of perjury and how it relates to our legal system. While I disagree strongly with most of his political beliefs, he is correct about the terrible nature of perjury. In 1999, while being interviewed in Washington, Professor Dershowitz stated, “I think the most serious form of perjury is the biblical prohibition against bearing false witness against an innocent person.” I could not agree more.
In Georgia, the crime of perjury is outlined in O.C.G.A. 16-10-70 which provides:
(a) A person to whom a lawful oath or affirmation has been administered commits the offense of perjury when, in a judicial proceeding, he knowingly and willfully makes a false statement material to the issue or point in question.
(b) A person convicted of the offense of perjury shall be punished by a fine of not more than $1,000.00 or by imprisonment for not less than one nor more than ten years, or both. A person convicted of the offense of perjury that was a cause of another’s being imprisoned shall be sentenced to a term not to exceed the sentence provided for the crime for which the other person was convicted. A person convicted of the offense of perjury that was a cause of another’s being punished by death shall be punished by life imprisonment.
As you can see, the law takes the act of bearing false witness rather seriously. However, you may be surprised to learn that perjury prosecutions are rare in our state. I could probably count on two hands the number of state perjury prosecutions I have seen in west Georgia over the past decade.
Perjury prosecutions are much more common in federal courts and in high profile cases. The impeachment and trial of President Clinton, the U.S. v. Martha Stewart, and the U.S. v. I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby are some examples of somewhat recent high profile perjury cases. Interestingly, none of these three public figures was convicted of the underlying offense. Stewart and Libby were convicted of lying about the underlying offense.
Bearing false witness in a criminal case is serious business and should be addressed more often than it is. There are men and women behind bars today based on perjured testimony of witnesses at trial. I cannot think of a greater injustice than this.