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EDITORIAL: Lying under oath

The state of California released Luther Jones from prison in February. He had served 18 years for sexually assaulting a 10-year-old girl.

Problem is, he didn’t do it.

Mr. Jones went free after the girl, now 30 years old, came forward and admitted she had lied on the stand back in 1998 when she told a jury he’d molested her five times. Her mother, who was in a custody dispute with Jones at the time, told her to fabricate the allegations of abuse, she said.

This sad story has no winners. But it highlights a serious problem that judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys must more aggressively address.

“Perjured testimony,” The Associated Press reported last week in a story on Mr. Jones, “is rampant in courts across the country yet rarely prosecuted, legal observers say.” For example, a University of Michigan Law School investigation has turned up about 1,900 wrongful U.S. convictions since 1989, with more than half being the result of false accusations or perjury.

Don Anderson is the district attorney in California’s Lake County, where Mr. Jones’ trial took place. In response to the revelations that a man spent almost two decades behind bars thanks to lies told under oath to judges, prosecutors and jurors, Mr. Anderson has now appointed an attorney in his office to head up a group formed to investigate perjury allegations.

The new unit may pursue charges against the mother of the girl whose lies put Luther Jones behind bars.

“We are so plagued with lying in the courtroom that it seems to have become just accepted,” Mr. Anderson told the wire service.

Yes, perjury is often difficult to prove. Discerning intent can be a challenge. Witnesses may sometimes become confused and offer conflicting testimony or feel pressured to shade the truth in order to provide a certain narrative. Other times, legitimate instances of mistaken identity can skew the process.

And the reality that one side — either the defense or the prosecution in a criminal case — will benefit from questionable testimony might foster temptations for those in the system to turn a blind eye to such transgressions.

Perjury alone does not explain every instance of false conviction, of course. And the problem also exists in civil litigation. But there’s no debating the fact that those who lie under oath —particularly as witnesses — about issues material to the issue before the court undermine the integrity of the justice system. Harsh penalties are warranted to deter the type of false assertions that cost Luther Jones more than a quarter of his life.

The AP notes that Mr. Anderson’s perjury investigations unit “may be the first of its kind in the country.” Let’s hope it’s not the last. Lives are at stake. Clark County District Attorney Steve Wolfson might consider creating a similar team.

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