Lake County District Attorney Don Anderson launches program to prosecute liars
Lake County District Attorney Don Anderson says he’s fed up with liars who fib under oath. In a novel offensive against what many say is a rampant problem in the court system, he’s assigned an attorney in his office to investigate and prosecute incidents of perjury.
“I’ve always had a pet peeve about people lying in court. It’s just so very common, especially in the family law arena, for people to come in and just lie their asses off,” Anderson said.
He said he hopes the new program will make people think twice about committing perjury. His office already is examining three cases for possible prosecution. He declined to provide details about the cases.
In February, a Lake County man convicted of sexually abusing a child was released from prison after his alleged victim recanted the testimony she gave when she was 10 years old. The man, Luther Jones, spent 18 years behind bars. A judge set him free after his alleged victim told Lake County District Attorney’s Office investigators she had lied at the behest of her mother, who at the time was battling Jones over custody of their 2-year-old daughter.
On Friday, the state awarded Jones $936,880 for wrongful imprisonment.
Anderson’s newly launched program - called the Judicial Integrity Unit - is rare, if not one of a kind.
William Fitzpatrick, president of the National District Attorneys Association, said he knows of no other district attorney’s office with a lawyer on staff specializing in perjury cases.
“I love the idea,” said Fitzpatrick, district attorney in Onondaga County, N.Y., which includes Syracuse.
“It shows a lot of leadership,” said Ronald Huff, professor emeritus of the Department of Criminology, Law and Society at UC, Irvine and an author of “Convicted but Innocent: Wrongful Conviction and Public Policy.” Thousands of people are wrongly convicted of serious crimes each year, many because of faulty testimony, a study in the 1996 book concluded.
Perjury is rarely prosecuted, Huff said. Some notable exceptions include home decorating maven Martha Stewart, who was convicted of lying under oath about insider trading in 2004, and Mark Fuhrman, the Los Angeles detective charged with lying about having used racial slurs in the years prior to the 1995 O.J. Simpson murder trial.
Perjury is responsible both for innocent people being imprisoned and guilty people remaining at large, free to commit more crimes, Huff noted.
The punishment in typical perjury cases includes potential sentences of between two and four years, Anderson said. But in particularly egregious cases, the penalties can be much higher. A California law allows liars whose testimony causes someone to wrongly be put to death to be charged with a death penalty perjury case, he said. Anderson said he’s unaware of any cases in which the death penalty was pursued for perjury.
While wrongful imprisonment cases can be horrific, the courts should also closely examine recantations, Fitzpatrick said.
“Recantations are very suspect,” he said.
Family law cases, in which money and child custody are at stake, in particular are rife with lies, Anderson said. He estimated half of those case files probably include lies.
Perjury is one of the most underreported crimes, Fitzpatrick said.
The incidents go largely ignored for several reasons, including that they’re difficult to prosecute, the attorneys said. Success depends on having material proof that the person who was untruthful knowingly lied.
“How do you prove, at the moment somebody did something, they did it intentionally?” asked Pasadena attorney Mark Baer, who has written about perjury for the San Gabriel Valley Psychological Association’s publication. One of his website’s blog postings asks: “Does anyone tell the truth any longer?”
He agreed there’s an “epidemic” of lying in the courts, but he questioned whether a program like Anderson’s would be effective.
“Has imprisoning people for substance abuse solved that problem?” Baer asked. He said it might be more effective to better train judges to discern fact from fiction in court cases.
He also wondered where the lines would be drawn when determining which cases to prosecute and at what cost.
Anderson said his program won’t cost much. A primary expense will be the cost of ordering transcripts to review testimony, he said.
Daniel Flesch, the attorney who will handle perjury allegations, is one of 14 in the department. He also will continue juggling a variety of other cases for the department, which has an estimated $4 million budget, Anderson said.
Austin Sarat, a professor of jurisprudence and political science at Amherst College, also questioned whether enhanced prosecutions of perjury would deter lying.
While seeing a police car along the side of the road will make most drivers briefly slow to the speed limit, the theory of a ticket, absent the police presence, isn’t as effective at making people obey the law, Sarat noted.
“I’m not in a position to say it will or it won’t work,” he said of Anderson’s plan. But the threat of prosecution is “not like the policeman on the side of the road.”
Anderson said he’s not expecting miracles, but he’s hoping to at least curtail some of the lies told under oath. Time will tell, he said.
“I’m not a dreamer,” Anderson said.