Perjury is the act of lying or making verifiably false statements on a material matter under oath or affirmation in a court of law or in any of various sworn statements in writing. However, statements that do not pertain to the crime under inquiry are not considered perjury. Perjury is a crime because the witness has sworn to tell the truth and, for the credibility of the court, witness testimony must be relied on as being truthful. The very fabric of the judicial system depends upon witness testimony, and thus perjury is taken extremely seriously in countries under which witnesses are required to make the oath of truthfulness. Beyond the legal implications, when the oath is taken to God, such as being sworn on a Bible, perjury is a sin in the eyes of all religions, and the disregard for such an oath implies a loss of faith that goes deeper than merely covering up a material crime.
Perjury is the giving of false testimony under oath. The word comes from the Middle English periurie, which in turn comes from the Latin peririum. The Latin means betrayal of law. To be considered perjury, the false testimony must be relevant to the case. Perjury also does not necessarily occur if two witnesses give contradicting accounts of an event as people's memories can differ, and neither may be lying. Perjury is distinguished from "contempt of court," which is an obstruction of justice by violating an order of the court.
The rules for perjury also apply to witnesses who have "affirmed" they are telling the truth. Affirmation is used by a witness who is unable to swear to tell the truth. For example, in the United Kingdom a witness may swear on the Bible or other holy book. If a witness has no religion, or does not wish to swear on a holy book, the witness may make an affirmation he or she is telling the truth instead.
The rules for perjury also apply when a person has made a statement under penalty of perjury, even if the person has not been sworn or affirmed as a witness before an appropriate official. An example of this is the United States income tax return, which, by law, must be signed as true and correct under penalty of perjury (see ). Federal tax law provides criminal penalties of up to three years in prison for violation of the tax return perjury statute (see ).
Perjury can have serious ramifications in the legal world. Though varying among legal systems, those convicted of perjury often face stiff penalties. Despite its potentially large impact, the number of prosecutions for perjury is small.
Perjury is considered a very serious crime as it could be used to usurp the power of the courts, resulting in miscarriages of justice. In the United States, for example, the general perjury statute under Federal law provides for a prison sentence of up to five years, and is found at , see also .
Statements of interpretation of fact are not perjury because people often make inaccurate statements unwittingly and not deliberately. Individuals may have honest but mistaken beliefs about certain facts or their recollection may be inaccurate. Like most other crimes in the common law system, to be convicted of perjury one must have to have had the intention (the mens rea) to commit the act, and to have actually committed the act (the actus reus).
In the United States, the Fifth Amendment to the constitution protects witnesses from being forced to incriminate themselves. To "plead the Fifth" or to "take the Fifth" is a refusal to answer a question because the response could form self incriminating evidence. This aspect of due process provides a method whereby a witness need not resort to perjury to avoid giving testimony that implicates them in any criminal activity. Thus, there is no need to commit perjury by lie under such circumstances.
In some countries, such as France, suspects cannot be heard under oath and thus do not commit perjury, whatever they say during their trial.
Perjury and Society
The possibility of perjury represents a serious threat to most legal systems in the world because of their foundation in the testimony of witnesses. Should this witness testimony be baseless, then civil and criminal decisions lose validity.
Lawyers may be faced with the dilemma of a client whose testimony is not entirely truthful—should they protect their client or the legal system? In order to protect society, under such circumstances has an obligation to the courts and the legal system that is superior to that owed their client, and thus they should disclose perjury to the courts. The integrity of the legal system and the legal profession thus depends on the honesty of lawyers in maintaining truthful testimony.
Subornation of perjury is the legal term describing the act of an attorney who presents testimony (or an affidavit) the attorney knows is materially false to a judge or jury as if it were factual. Generally, the knowledge that the testimony is materially false must rise above mere suspicion to what a reasonable attorney would have believed in the circumstances. An attorney who actively encourages a witness to give false testimony is clearly guilty of suborning perjury.
Subornation of perjury is a crime. It is also an offense for which an attorney can be disciplined, disbarred or jailed. Under American criminal law, subornation of perjury occurs when anyone—not just a lawyer—encourages a witness to perjure her/himself. Violators can face a maximum of five years in prison.
Perjury and Religion
Dishonesty is considered a sin in the major religious traditions, making perjury a crime in the eyes of religion as well as in the eyes of the law. Thus, in Buddhism it is taught that "A liar lies to himself as well as to the gods. Lying is the origin of all evils; it leads to rebirth in the miserable planes of existence, to breach of the pure precepts, and to corruption of the body" (Maharatnakuta Sutra 27, Bodhisattva Surata's Discourse). Likewise, in Islam, "O you who believe, wherefore do you say what you do not? Very hateful is it to God, that you say what you do not" (Qur'an 61.2-3). Judaism and Christianity also note that "Lying lips are an abomination to the Lord" (Proverbs 12.22). In Sikhism one is warned that "Dishonesty in business or the uttering of lies causes inner sorrow" (Adi Granth, Maru Solahe, M.3, p. 1062).
Famous Examples of Perjury
Famous persons who have been accused and convicted of perjury include:
- Jonathan Aitken, British politician, who was a member of John Major's cabinet, sentenced to 18 months imprisonment for perjury.
- Jeffrey Archer, British novelist and politician, sentenced to four years imprisonment for perjury.
- Alger Hiss, alleged Soviet spy who worked for the United States Department of State, sentenced to five years imprisonment for perjury and served 44 months.
- Lil' Kim, American Rapper.
- Dr. Cecil Jacobson, American fertility doctor.
- Chris Webber, NBA Rookie of the Year (1994), All-Star and former University of Michigan Wolverine, who admitted he received gifts and cash from a booster.
- Lewis "Scooter" Libby, former aide to Vice President Dick Cheney and assistant to President George W. Bush, convicted of two counts of perjury along with other offenses.
Famous individuals who have been accused of perjury include:
- Former U.S. President Bill Clinton was accused of perjury—and as a result was fined for contempt of court, agreed to be disbarred, and was impeached by the House of Representatives on December 19, 1998. The Senate rejected the perjury with 55 not-guilty votes and 45 guilty votes. No criminal charges were ever brought.
- Former Houston Police Chief C.O. Bradford was indicted by Harris County District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal for alleged swearing at fellow Houston Police officers; perjury charge was dismissed due to the lack of evidence and/or fabricated charges.
- Rafael Palmeiro faced perjury charges (but was never charged) for possible false testimony in front of Congress regarding steroid use in professional baseball.
- Barry Bonds, American baseball player, has been accused of perjury in regards to his possible use of steroids.
- In the trial of Saddam Hussein's half-brother and former Iraqi intelligence chief Barzan al-Tikriti, the defense team accused prosecution witnesses of perjury.
- Former Philippines President Joseph Estrada was accused of perjury for making false statements about his assets while in office.
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- Perjury Free Advice. Retrieved August 30, 2007.
- Pope, Daniel J., and Stephanie J. Kim. "Client perjury: should a lawyer defend the system or the client?" Defense Counsel Journal, Vol. 54, No. 6: 51-55, 1997.
- Perjury Catholic Encyclopedia. Retrieved August 30, 2007.
- Former Cheney Aide I. Lewis 'Scooter' Libby Gets 30 Months in Prison Fox News. Retrieved August 30, 2007.
- Clinton found in civil contempt for Jones testimony CNN. Retrieved August 30, 2007.
- Clinton Eligible, Once Again, To Practice Law New York Sun. Retrieved August 30, 2007.
- Saddam defendant ejected by judge BBC. Retrieved August 30, 2007.
- Estrada in court on perjury charge BBC. Retrieved August 30, 2007.
- Pope, Daniel J. and Stephanie J. Kim. "Client perjury: should a lawyer defend the system or the client?" Defense Counsel Journal, Vol. 54, No. 6: 51-55, 1997.
- Stolberg, William H. and Kyle D. Pence. "A serious penalty for perjury." Florida Bar Journal, Vol. 73, No. 2: 50, 1999.
- United States. The Consequences of Perjury and Related Crimes: Hearing Before the Committee on the Judiciary, House of Representatives, One Hundred Fifth Congress. United States Government Printing Office, 1998. ISBN 016057952X
- Weinstein, Allen. Perjury: The Hiss-Chambers Case. Random House, 1997. ISBN 067977338X
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