Telling the truth under oath is “a breathtakingly simple proposition on which the entire American legal system rests,” Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist James B. Stewart writes in his new book Tangled Webs: How False Statements Are Undermining America. Yet perjury is becoming more common, particularly among white-collar criminals. Stewart visits Zócalo on May 23 to discuss the grave threat perjury poses to the nation, and what we should do about it.
We know how many murders are committed each year-1,318,398 in 2009. We know the precise numbers for reported instances of rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny, and vehicle theft. No one keeps statistics for perjury and false statements-lies told under oath or to investigative and other agencies of the U.S. government-even though they are felonies punishable by up to five years in prison. There is simply too much of it, and too little is prosecuted to generate any meaningful statistics.
Although lying seems to be an inherent part of human nature, the narrow but serious class of lies that undermines the judicial process on which government depends has been a crime as old as civilization itself. Originally prosecuted in England by ecclesiastical courts, by the sixteenth century perjury was firmly embedded as a crime in the English common law. The offender was typically punished by cutting out his tongue, or making him stand with both ears nailed to the pillory. False testimony that resulted in the execution of an innocent person was itself punishable by death. Exile, imprisonment, fines, and “perpetual infamy” were meted out as the centuries passed.
Perjury was a crime in the American colonies and has been a crime in the United States since independence. Today perjury and false statements are federal offenses under U.S. criminal code Title 18, and perjury is also outlawed by statute in all fifty states. The obligation to appear as a witness if summoned and to provide truthful testimony has been inculcated in generations of Americans through civics and history classes. “I swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth” is a phrase nearly every American knows by heart.
Yet lying under oath is a subjective crime. It requires the person telling the lie to know that the statement is false and to intend to lie. The subject of the lie must be “material,” of some importance, and not a trivial irrelevancy. Guilt or innocence turns not on accuracy, but on state of mind. For that reason, it is an extremely difficult crime to detect, prosecute, and prove.
Mounting evidence suggests that the broad public commitment to telling the truth under oath has been breaking down, eroding over recent decades, a trend that has been accelerating in recent years. Because there are no statistics, it’s impossible to know for certain how much lying afflicts the judicial process, and whether it’s worse now than in previous decades. Street criminals have always lied when confronted by law enforcement. But prosecutors have told me repeatedly that a surge of concerted, deliberate lying by a different class of criminal-sophisticated, educated, affluent, and represented in many cases by the best lawyers-threatens to swamp the legal system and undermine the prosecution of white-collar crime. Perjury is committed all too often at the highest levels of business, media, politics, sports, culture-even the legal profession itself-by people celebrated for their achievements, followed avidly by the media, and held up as role models.
This surge of perjury cases at the highest levels of business, politics, media, and culture poses some fundamental questions: Why would people with so much to lose put so much at risk by lying under oath? Whatever they may have done, why would they compound their problems by committing an independent felony, punishable by prison? What were the consequences? And what price are all of us paying for their behavior?
I set out to answer these questions by examining recent cases of perjury by people at the pinnacle of their fields. They come from the worlds of media, business, politics, sports, law, and Wall Street-just about every center of power and influence in American society. They enjoyed money, fame, power, and celebrity to a degree that most people can only dream of. Yet they shattered their lives and those of people around them while inflicting untold damage on society as a whole. I believe that only by exploring these fascinating cases in depth do the answers to my questions emerge.
Most instances of perjury are very difficult to assess, because sworn testimony is often delivered in secrecy, before a grand jury, or as part of a confidential investigation. All of the lies in these cases were told in circumstances that at the time were veiled in secrecy. In each of these cases, I was able to obtain transcripts of such testimony or notes taken by FBI agents or other investigators. They provide a rare look at the very moment these people made the fateful choice to lie.
That a witness will raise his hand, swear to tell the truth, and then do so is a breathtakingly simple proposition on which the entire American legal system rests. These cases tell us what happens when that proposition breaks down.
*Photo courtesy of ~dgies.