What Are the Consequences of Perjury in a Criminal Trial?
By Dan Noll on May 20th, 2015 in
Discovering the truth has been defined as the basic goal of the US justice system, and perjury may disrupt and pervert the structure. For this reason, perjury is a very serious offense and carries strong penalties.
What Is Perjury?
Simply put, perjury is lying under oath. It includes statements made under oath in trials, grand juries, bail hearings, family court hearings, depositions and even Congressional committee hearings. Sworn written statements made to government agencies and in financial documents, such as loan applications, are also subject to perjury laws.
There are specific conditions that must be met for a false statement to constitute perjury. First, it must be made under oath to a judge, notary public or other qualified public official in a proceeding that is authorized by law. It must be a statement. If you refuse to answer or if you remain silent when questioned, you have not committed perjury.
To be perjury, there must be intent to mislead; you must be aware that your statement is false. If you are confused, remember inaccurately or make a mistake, it is not perjury. Inconsistent statements, however, may subject you to investigation for perjury; if you say that you don’t remember seeing the car driven by the bank robber but later describe the racing stripes on the doors, the prosecutor may believe your first statement was intentionally false. The statement must also be material to the case; if you lie about something unrelated to the case, it is not perjury.
Attempting to induce someone else to perjure him or herself, whether through threats or offering financial incentive, is illegal and called “suborning perjury.” For the average citizen, being guilty of suborning perjury requires that the witness actually lie in court. However, if an attorney knows that someone plans to lie under oath, calling her to testify may result in the attorney being charged. If the potential perjurer is the attorney’s client, who has the right to testify with or without his attorney’s approval, the attorney must allow him to make his statement without questioning him or otherwise participating in the testimony.
What Are the Penalties for Perjury?
In both federal and state courts, perjury is a felony, which means that it is punishable by at least one year in prison. In federal cases, that penalty can extend to five years and a hefty fine. The increase in sentencing may depend on how much the falsehood affected the outcome of the proceeding. In addition, a witness who commits perjury may be charged as an accessory to the original crime. In some states, a perjurer could even face the death penalty if the false testimony leads to the execution of an innocent person. In Illinois, perjury is categorized as a Class 3 felony, which carries a possible sentence of two to five years in prison. Suborning perjury is a Class 4 felony, with a one- to three-year jail term range.
While there is no civil remedy for a defendant wrongly convicted based on perjured testimony, or to a party losing a lawsuit from the perjury, if convicted of perjury, you could lose your professional licenses. These include those in the legal profession, law enforcement and some public service occupations, and you may not qualify for a security clearance needed for some employment.
In some cases, you might be able to avoid conviction if you recant the false testimony during the same proceeding, although there is no obligation for the court to dismiss the charges.
What Should You Do if You Believe You Are a Victim of Perjury?
If you have irrefutable evidence that a witness committed perjury, discuss it with your attorney, who will then speak with the prosecutor and the judge about charges being brought against the individual. Unfortunately, perjury can be challenging to prosecute successfully, because it is difficult to prove that someone had intent to mislead rather than the witness being simply confused or speaking from a different perspective.