Q: A friend of mine was convicted in a criminal case, but one of the witnesses was lying, which was a big part of why the jury decided the way it did. What should I do with this?
- P.A., Hawthorne
Answer: Perjury means a material falsehood. It is a knowing lie but can include stating something under oath in court as truth when the witness is not really sure if it is true. It is also a crime to ask someone to lie (known as subornation of perjury).
Do you know if the person who you believe lied on the stand, under oath, was told to do so by someone else? If so, disclosure to proper authorities of that other person's role may be appropriate. As to just who to tell about the dishonest witness, the first thought that comes to mind is to immediately inform the lawyer representing your friend in the criminal case. If there is no lawyer (perhaps your friend represented him or herself), have your friend bring the information to the court's attention in asking for a retrial.
Also, it may be proper, let alone very important, to inform the prosecuting attorney. The prosecutor has an ethical obligation to evaluate potentially exculpating information and, if genuine, bring it to the attention of the court and the other party. You may also want to contact the police. If there is a sentencing hearing, you could compose a letter to the judge about what you believe. To err on the side of caution, however, I would consult with a knowledgeable lawyer to be sure what you say is not somehow going to be problematic for you (e.g., the witness claims you are engaging in defamation).
Q: Just what does it take to prove someone committed perjury? In my divorce, I am not shocked, but my soon-to-be-ex is clearly being deceitful about his earnings.
- G.W., Culver City
A: In a divorce proceeding in California, the parties by law have a fiduciary duty to be honest and forthcoming about assets. This means not just a basic or ordinary responsibility of accuracy, but an affirmative duty or enhanced obligation by law to "come clean." The court can impose damages among other remedies against a spouse who has been shown to have concealed pertinent information, engaged in material misrepresentation, or sought to wrongfully limit or prevent the other party's rightful interest in an asset. An accounting can be ordered by the court.
Typically, the proof involves documentation to show, for example, that what the spouse disclosed is indeed seriously at odds with demonstrable reality. A witness or witnesses can help, and a bank account may be a material part of the proof, as can be a discovered title document, or demonstrable efforts to conceal actual interest in an asset.
As to the criminal offense of perjury, it is a statement made under oath in a formal proceeding that the witness knows to be untrue. As in any criminal case, proof must be established beyond a reasonable doubt.
Ron Sokol is a Manhattan Beach attorney with more than 30 years of experience. His column appears on Wednesdays. Email questions and comments to him at RonSEsq@aol.com or write to him at Ask The Lawyer, Daily Breeze, 21250 Hawthorne Blvd., Suite 170, Torrance, CA 90503. This column is a summary of the law and not a substitute for legal consultation on any particular case.