Perjury after the fact

Suppose that I honestly testify to something under oath, to the best of my ability. But then, after my testimony has finished, I find evidence–perhaps I read some old files, or flip through an old yearbook–the convinces me that my testimony was made in error (albeit in good faith).

What is my legal responsibility, if any, to come forward and correct the record?

Lets chew this over in bits.

There is no perjury. Your inaccurate testimony lacks mens rea = guilty intent. You have not deliberately given false evidence, indeed you have been truthful to the best of your knowledge and belief.

So what are your legal responsibilities? I don’t know, that will depend upon the jurisdiction that you are in. I do not know of any law requiring a witness to come forward and correct their evidence later but some countries may require that.

Jurisprudence (philosophy of the law) may have something to say about this but I slept through the lectures. :smiley:

However morally and ethically you do have a dilemma whereby you have to decide whether to disclose your mistake to all parties.

Finally and anecdotally, I recall a lecturer at law school who having sworn an affidavit in a case, later discovered he was wrong. It happens. There is psychological research on the reliability of witnesses which shows human recall is alarmingly inaccurate. That’s one of the reasons courts like to see corroboration which can be scientific as well as human.


Morally, I could possibly see a duty to step forward and correct your testimony if the case is still active, but am not sure about it. I don’t know if any jurisdiction considers failing to do so as a form of perjury, a non-perjury offense, or a tort. If the case has become res judicata, in my understanding even proof of intentional perjury cannot always reopen the case. If this were the case, losing litigants could allege perjury year after year and harass the other side with court dates and legal bills for decade after decade.

Perjury is generally defined in common law jurisdictions as the giving of evidence that you know and or have a reasonable belief is untrue. So in your example you would not be guilty of perjury as testimony was not given other such knowledge or belief. Note, the converse is also true, you can be guilty of perjury if you give testimony you believe is untrue, but turns out to be accurate. An example would be if you said that X and Y were having an affair and you later discover that they were in fact having one.

An example in your OP is unlikely to arise. Witnesses are allowed to refer to notes and the like during testimony; not to read out verbatim, but for recollection purposes. A police constable is permitted to use his diary to recall and recollect what transpired when he is on the stand, after all the arrest and investigation may have occurred months ago, a manager can use memo and minutes of meetings to remember what was said during contract negotiations from several years ago. When cases go to trial generally both parties would have spent a fortune hunting down all evidence and ensuring that witnesses are able to recollect. So its unlikely (though not impossible) that such an omission would happen. If it happens, well you can recant testimony, though usually with the permission of the court. Whether you have a duty to so recant? Would depend on the circumstances of the case in question and when you discovered so.

I am a lawyer.

I hope you’re not a criminal defense lawyer (or maybe scarier, a prosecutor) because you seem to be ignorant of the vast numbers of cases with eyewitness testimony that later DNA (or other) evidence has shown to be wrong. Quite a number of these are death penalty cases, where theoretically no expense was spared the first time around to corroborate the witnesses and help them remember accurately.

I simply pointed out that the specific example in the OP that is discovering you were wrong based upon a rereading of the recorder or notes or files is unlikely to occur. I never said anything about the reliability of eyewitness or expert testimony, the latter of which is opinion evidence anyway.