Ruling strikes at defendants who lie Supreme Court rules unanimously

February 24, 1993|By Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON -- In a decision that could make defendants reluctant to testify in their own behalf, the Supreme Court ruled yesterday that a person who denies charges against him in court but is later convicted may be subject to additional federal penalties for obstruction of justice.

The 9-0 ruling overturns a federal appeals court, which ruled that a defendant's right to deny his guilt without fear of punishment was "basic to justice."

Writing for the high court, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy said, "A defendant's right to testify does not include a right to commit perjury."

The decision reinstates a 51-month prison term for a West Virginia woman, who denied being part of a cocaine ring but was later convicted on multiple drug charges.

Yesterday's ruling applies directly only to testimony in federal courts, but the decision makes clear that state judges also may impose stiffer sentences on defendants who lie.

Criminal law experts said judges have long been able to impose harsher sentences on defendants who take the witness stand and perjure themselves during testimony about others. A bank robbery defendant who falsely accuses someone else of committing the crime, for example, could be sentenced to 15 years in prison, when perjury charges were added, rather than 10 years.

New U.S. sentencing guidelines incorporated that principle into federal law in 1988, saying a defendant's prison term could be "enhanced" for attempting to "impede or obstruct the administration of justice," including by "testifying untruthfully" during the trial.

Virtually every U.S. appeals court has upheld such extra punishments as constitutional. Typically, however, the power to impose longer sentences has not been invoked in instances in which a defendant simply denies accusations against him.

"This means that any defendant has to think very hard about testifying. I think it also means that a defense lawyer has the responsibility to warn his client that, if you testify, you may well have your sentence enhanced," said Ira Mickenberg, a criminal defense expert at the New York Law School.

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