Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help you God?
We’re all familiar with that line from any TV show or movie featuring a courtroom scene, right hand raised, left hand on the Bible. And we naturally assumed, given the gravity of the situation they were portraying, that the witness would indeed be honest. However, in real life it can be a much different story. To some, swearing to tell the truth is a promise made in bad faith.
So what is the full scope of perjury? The Criminal Code of Canada (Misleading Justice) Section 131(1) states: “Subject to subsection (3), every one commits perjury who, with intent to mislead, makes before a person who is authorized by law to permit it to be made before him a false statement under oath or solemn affirmation, by affidavit, solemn declaration or deposition or orally, knowing that the statement is false.”
It might seem fairly straightforward to prosecute those who deliberately perjure themselves, but that’s not so according to legal experts who say that perjury is extremely difficult to prove, and in order to lay charges it must be determined if it was actually done willfully; whether the witness knew what they were saying was untrue when they said it.
In Almost Broken I deal with perjury and its frightening ramifications, including the inevitable fallout when someone’s lies are accepted as truth:
“Stepping closer she landed a stinging slap across the side of his face that forced him back a step from the sheer weight of the unexpected blow. He made no effort to defend himself. He felt rooted to the spot, too mortified to move, those around him gone silent now as the spectacle continued to play out.”
But surely, we say, an experienced judge could ascertain when a witness is lying, and challenge them accordingly. Not always it seems, because while they do their best to determine if the witness is in fact telling the truth, a judge is only human, and can also be deceived. The justice system must routinely deal with practiced and convincing liars, continuing to lie should the judge, or lawyer, be concerned enough to remind them they are under oath.
And if witnesses, or anyone else making a false statement under oath in a judicial system, are caught lying? Section 132 of the Code states that “Every one who commits perjury is guilty of an indictable offence and liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding fourteen years.”
While some, perhaps many, may get away with committing perjury, others have not escaped prosecution, the long arm of the law reaching out to bring them to justice.
Giving false testimony before a federal grand jury is what earned a popular entertainer a sentence of one year in prison in addition to paying a hefty fine. Athletes who have been caught lying under oath, most commonly about using performance-enhancing drugs, have earned jail sentences; police officers perjuring themselves have been similarly punished. A long-time British Member of Parliament was also found guilty of perjury, and despite his elevated political position, spent two full years in prison.
As a former Commissioner of Oaths, an officer of the court, I once had a summons server lie to me, under oath, swearing that he had served the parking summonses in question (about 300), when in fact he had not done so. He subsequently served a jail term of several months for perjury. You don’t have to be in a courtroom to commit perjury, although that’s usually where it takes place.
Obviously, false testimony given while under oath can have a disastrous impact on the lives of others, innocent people convicted of crimes they did not commit, and as a result, sometimes spending decades in prison while the guilty (often the perjuring witness) go free.
In Almost Broken, the perjury committed creates heartbreaking results:
“No,” he returned at length, “but she and I will have that conversation and you can take that straight to the bank. This isn’t over. No way. It can’t be until she makes it right. I want my conviction overturned. I want my good name back. My reputation. I want everything back that she took from me.”
Declan kept to the right-hand lane for Fredericton at the split in the highway, the route that would take them to Woodstock. “You think that’s possible, Blaise? You had a topnotch lawyer in James Pringle, Sr. They don’t come much better than him around here, and he couldn’t get you off. What makes you think you can get the conviction overturned? Is that even realistic at this point? A mother’s testimony holds great sway and in this case it’s what did you in. And I have to say she was very convincing. The judge bought it, but I believe you, not her.”
“All my mother has to do is admit she was lying. Recant her statement, her testimony. It wouldn’t be the first time such a thing has happened.”