Why do witnesses raise their right hands and promise to tell the truth, the whole truth, so help them, God? Why do they place their left hands on a Bible?
In modern times, these formalities are designed to “awaken a witness’s conscience and impress his mind with his duty to testify truthfully.” Long ago, however, oaths were taken on the superstitious belief that God would protect the truthful but punish liars with death.
The criminal defendant in this week’s case disproved that old superstition by lying in court and living to tell about it. The opinion in his Supreme Court appeal is entitled State of South Dakota v. Trent Danielson, 2012 S.D. 36.
Crime and lying seem to travel hand-in-hand. Indeed, the first crime story in the Bible (Cain killing Abel) is very shortly followed by the first cover-up (Cain telling God “I know not where my brother is.”)
A few books later, in Deuteronomy, we are cautioned that, “One witness is not enough to convict a man accused of any crime or offense he may have committed. A matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.”
God knew Cain was lying. But the rest of humanity needed some sort of truth-serum in order to counteract our dishonest tendencies.
Our solution was the “oath.” In ancient times, criminal defendants were given a sulfur drink in order to determine their truthfulness. It was believed that God would protect an honest person’s body from the sulfur. Hence, the phrase “taking” an oath was originally used in the same way as “taking” a drink.
Nowadays, we skip the sulfur and treat an oath-taking as a solemn, public promise that we are telling the truth. (But we still refer to the consequences as “the pains and penalty of perjury.”) Lying under oath is a felony, though it is rarely prosecuted.
Trent Danielson is one of the unlucky few to face the charge. He was hired in 2003 to work for Rocket Lube in Spearfish, South Dakota, as a mechanic and painter. Three years later, he was fired amidst allegations that he was stealing from the company.
During the prior year, Danielson had collected seven checks for repair work from a customer, but allegedly pocketed the checks rather than turning them over to the company. The repair work at issue was for a 1950 Studebaker pickup that belonged to a local professor.
Rocket Lube reported the alleged crime and Danielson was indicted on a felony count of grand theft. (“Grand theft” is stealing more than $1,000.)
At trial, Danielson claimed that the local professor was upset about being overcharged and had proposed a side agreement to pay Danielson directly for repair work in his spare time.
As part of his defense, Danielson testified about the work he had done to the Studebaker’s transmission and introduced photographs to help tell his story.
The jury acquitted him of the grand theft charge. The prosecutor immediately filed a new case against Danielson, this time alleging perjury. Specifically, the State alleged that Danielson was lying about the work he claimed to have done to the Studebaker transmission.
Danielson was not pleased. He asked the criminal court to toss out the perjury charge because he believed it amounted to double jeopardy. He reasoned that since the jury had acquitted him of grand theft using his own testimony, therefore, the jury had already concluded he was truthful, and it would be unfair to stand for trial a second time.
In an initial appeal, the Supreme Court rejected his double-jeopardy reasoning, because the jury in his grand theft trial was not asked whether or not the Studebaker was repaired, but, instead, whether or not Danielson was pocketing checks that didn’t belong to him.
When the jury returned a “not guilty” verdict for grand theft, it meant only that the State hadn’t proven its case about the checks. The door was still open as to whether Danielson actually had done the work he claimed to have done.
Thus, Danielson was eligible to stand trial for perjury.
At the second trial, the State introduced two main pieces of evidence: the transcript of Danielson’s testimony from the first trial; and three expert witnesses who had investigated the the Studebaker’s transmission.
Danielson had testified at his first trial that his on-the-side work for the professor involved replacing the clutch and clutch pack inside the Studebaker’s transmission.
The expert witnesses told a different story: when they opened up the transmission and inspected it, they found old parts that appeared to be factory original equipment. The only new parts to be found were the pan and filter.
The jury convicted Danielson of perjury, and he filed another appeal. The Supreme Court rejected each of his arguments, and his conviction will stand.
However, as to the “pains and penalties” of perjury, there don’t appear to be any: the trial judge sentenced Danielson to three years of probation.