January 29, 2007

Inferences in perjury cases

As those who keep up with the news are aware, Lewis "Scooter" Libby is currently on trial for five counts of perjury. This means that the prosecutor believes Libby lied under oath. Everyone lies at one time or other, but lying isn't a criminal charge unless it's done under oath about issues material to the case. It's generally agreed that lying involves a falsehood, deliberate concealment, or misrepresentation of truth with the intent to lead a listener or reader into error or to disadvantage. Merriam Webster's Dictionary of Law (1996) defines perjury:

Knowingly making a false statement (as about material matter) while under oath or bound by an affirmation or other officially prescribed declaration that what one says, writes, or claims is true.

The key words here are "intent" and "knowingly." I don't know what all the evidence is in Libby's case but I do know that trying  to discover a person's intentions can be a complicated business. It will be interesting to watch how this plays out in Libby's case. I've seen prosecutorial efforts that have  done a questionable job of it. The 1983 case of Steven Suyat, a carpenter's union business agent, comes to mind.

Suyat was not even a target in the original investigation in 1981, when the head of his carpenter's union was accused of unfair practices after he had his union members picket  the site of a housing contractor who didn't pay union rates to his non-union workers.  Two of the union's business representatives (Suyat wasn't one of them) were required to file affidavits to the National Labor Relations Board, which eventually settled the dispute.

But eighteen months later the District Attorney filed perjury charges against these two union business agents, based largely on secret tape recordings the contractor had made of his conversations with them. Suyat was called to testify before the Grand Jury and at their trial but he was not charged with anything directly related to this case. Then, shortly after the two business agents were convicted, Suyat was indicted for perjury that he allegedly commiteed during his testimony.

Four of the counts in his indictment, taken directly from his trial testimony, are the following:

Count 1

Prosecutor: And one of the jobs of the business agent is to organize non-union contractors. Is that right?

Suyat: No.

Count 2

Prosecutor: So no part of your job is to organize contractors?

Suyat: No.

Count 3

Prosecutor: An no part of Mr. Nishibayashi's job is to organize contractors?

Suyat: That's right.

Count 4

Prosecutor: And no part of Mr. Torres' job is  to organize contractors?

Suyat: That's right.

Here's where intention comes in. What did the prosecutor intend in his questions and what did Suyat intend in his responses? Was Suyat lying? More to the point, what did  he think the prosecutor was asking him? Maybe the average person might understand that when the prosecutor said, "organize contractors," he really meant, "organize people who work for contractors." But not Suyat. And mabye the average person might understand that Suyat's answers were to the fact that unions organize workers, not their bosses, the contractors for whom they work. But not this prosecutor. At Suyat's trial the jury adoped the prosecutor's intention, not Suyat's, and convicted him of commiting perjury under oath.

These four counts illustrate the importance of context, something near and dear to the hearts of sociolinguists. For us, "context" refers to both linguistic and social context. The latter embraces the non-language factors surrounding a statement. It includes such things as where the statement took place, the educational and social status of the speakers, the conversational genre and routine in which the conversation took place, and other sociolinguistic factors.

So let's consider some of the social context. Suyat, a second-generation Filipino, was born and raised on the island of Molokai, which then had a population of about 12,000--a backwater area. Most of the inhabitants of the island worked in the cane fields or factories. Suyat was in a class of about a hundred students who graduated from the island's only high school. He then became a carpenter for seven years before taking the job as one of his union's business agents. Like his fellow Molokaians, he spoke Hawaiian Pidgin English. And like most of the rest of us, he little understood the discourse routines and genre found in a court trial. But he had enough schooling to know that he needed to listen carefully to what was asked of him and to answer carefully. So when the prosecutor put forth an inaccurate definition of what union business agents do, Suyat thought he was answering truthfully. Union business agents do NOT organize contractors. Most dictionaries, such as Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, agree with him:

contractor  1. one that contracts or is a party to a contract: as  a: one that contracts to peform work or supplies   b.  one that contracts to erect buildings.

Whether or not they realized it, this case presented the urban Honolulu jury with two different sets of intentions. The ultimate irony is that in his attempt to be accurate, Suyat was convicted of perjury.

The way words are used in both their linguistic and social context will be interesting to watch in the Libby trial.

[footnote] A fuller discussion of U.S. v Steven Suyat can be found in my 1993 book, Language Crimes: The Use and Abuse of Language Evidence in the Courtroom, published by Blackwell Publishers.

Posted by Roger Shuy at January 29, 2007 11:34 AM