Sentence extension for perjury gets OK High court action streamlines trials

February 24, 1993|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court approved yesterday a new, fast-acting way to punish individuals who lie on the stand during their trials: just add more time to the prison sentence, without a separate perjury trial.

That shortcut, the court decided unanimously, would not violate any right that an accused person has to testify and try to persuade a jury not to convict.

Under the decision, prosecutors appear to have a chance to get what amounts to a double result from the same evidence. Judges would simply use the evidence that led to a guilty verdict to contradict what the accused person said on the stand, rule that perjury had been committed, and then extend the sentence that otherwise would have been given.

The decision was based on a part of the formal guidelines that control what federal judges may do in imposing criminal sentences. But since the court removed all constitutional doubt about that procedure, states would be free to adopt it as their own if they wished.

In a second unanimous ruling yesterday, the court sternly warned federal courts not to interfere when state legislatures or state courts are trying to work out redistricting plans for their legislative and congressional seats. In another part of that decision, the court made it more difficult for black and other minority voters to demand the creation of districts in which they would be the majority and thus better able to control election outcomes.

The court's decision on punishment for perjury came in the case of Sharon Dunnigan, a Charleston, W.Va., woman who was convicted of being part of a ring that sold cocaine in the JTC Charleston area in the late 1980s. Prosecutors said Dunnigan was the ring's connection to cocaine suppliers in Cleveland.

She took the stand at her trial and flatly denied any role in purchasing or distributing cocaine, contradicting evidence against her from five witnesses who described her involvement in detail. After the jury convicted her, the judge, following the federal sentencing guidelines, added two "levels" to the prison term the guidelines set, making a total of 4 years and 3 months.

The judge relied on a guideline that a two-level jump in a sentence is allowed for anyone who obstructs justice. The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the guideline was unconstitutional because it interfered with the right of an accused person to opt to testify.

The Circuit Court said it feared that in every case where an individual took the stand and denied the charges, a higher sentence would be imposed. The guilty verdict on the underlying crime, the Circuit Court said, implies that the jury did not believe the accused individual's testimony.

Overturning that result, the Supreme Court said that judges could use perjury as a basis for a longer sentence only if a separate finding was made at the time of sentencing that the individual committed the equivalent of the separate crime of perjury.

In the court's ruling on redistricting, it nullified a decision by a special three-judge federal court in Minneapolis a year ago that ordered creation of a new minority-dominated state legislative district in Minneapolis.

The lower court found that only one black individual had been elected to the legislature in the last decade and that minorities need a better chance to elect members of their own groups without being outvoted by whites. So the court fashioned a new minority district in Minneapolis dominated by four minorities.

The Supreme Court said the federal court should have stood aside because the legislature and a state court were at work on their own redistricting plans. The justices also wiped out the new minority-dominated district, saying that the lower court had no basis for concluding that minorities in Minneapolis had been denied an equal opportunity to participate in state politics.

In an opinion written by Justice Antonin Scalia, the court said that minority voters seeking a single-member district of their own will have to prove that they exist in large enough numbers in a concentrated area to justify such a district, that they tend to vote together in elections, and that they have been outvoted by whites in past elections. There was no proof of any of those points in the Minnesota case, the court concluded.

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