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False Testimony: What Tangled Web We Weave

Update May 25, 2012: In the newly-published report by the National Registry of Exonerations, the the most common causal factors that contributed to the underlying false convictions are perjury or false accusation.

False testimony in a criminal trial can have disastrous effects. Although the effects cannot be completely reversed, there is hope for relief from the lie.  

The ABA Journal recounts the tragic tale of a father who is now free from prison after his daughter admitted that she made up the story that he had raped her. Sadly, the then 11-year-old daughter lied about her father because she was “[d]isappointed in her father, who, she felt, didn’t love her enough.”

In that case, the daughter came forward with her lie and her father was released. In an effort to encourage liars to come forward, the daughter won’t be charged.

But what does a defendant who is the victim of false testimony do when the lying witness doesn’t get an attack of conscience and come forward?

That’s where relief by the “Great Writ” — writ of habeas corpus — comes in. The court in People v Villa (2009) 45 C4th 1063, 1068, 90 CR3d 344 called it

the greatest remedy known to the law whereby one unlawfully restrained of his liberty can secure his release.

When false evidence has been introduced against a prisoner at any hearing or trial relating to his incarceration, the prisoner may seek relief by writ of habeas corpus. Pen C §1473(b)(1). Under Pen C §1473(b), the introduction of false evidence is a ground for habeas corpus relief when either

  • false evidence that is substantially material or probative on the issue of guilt or punishment was introduced at any hearing or trial relating to the petitioner’s incarceration, or
  • false physical evidence that the petitioner believed to be factual, probative, or material on the issue of guilt was a material factor directly related to his or her plea of guilty.

The habeas petitioner has the burden of proving that the evidence is false and that it affected the outcome of his trial. Section 1473 doesn’t require that the petitioner prove the false evidence was perjured or the prosecution knew of its falsity. Pen C §1473(b)(1), (c). In fact, if the prosecution discovers that the testimony was false on its own, it’s obligated to immediately take steps to correct its witnesses’ known misstatements.

Note that, although the discovery of perjured testimony almost always results from discovery of new evidence, that’s a distinct ground for habeas corpus relief subject to different legal standards. In re Pratt (1980) 112 CA3d 795, 862, 170 CR 80.

Want more information on how to deal with false testimony? Turn to CEB’s California Criminal Law Procedure and Practice, Jefferson’s California Evidence Benchbook, and Appeals and Writs in Criminal Cases (with Chapter 9 dedicated to habeas corpus).

© The Regents of the University of California, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

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