Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Feb 11, 2020

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What happens when a witness contradicts himself in a court proceeding depends on the context and circumstances surrounding the statements that were made. Court proceedings often take place over a long time, during which period a witness’ memory or perception of events may change. Consequently, out of court statements made by a witness that differ from his court testimony can be used to undermine the opposing party’s case. For example, if the witness said at the scene that the cat that caused the accident was gray, but in court said it was black, his differing descriptions can be used to argue that he really did not know the color of the cat.

Contradictory Witness Statements and Perjury

During the various proceedings that make up a court case, such as depositions, preliminary hearings and the trial itself, witnesses often testify under oath. A witness’ testimony can and often does vary from hearing to hearing, potentially opening him up to perjury charges. However, a witness is generally not charged with perjury, the willful and intentional act of making false statements under oath, unless not to do so would be a miscarriage of justice. A policy of prosecuting witnesses for perjury based on the contradictory statements they made under oath could potentially inhibit future witnesses from willingly coming to court to testify.

The contradictory statements a witness makes may also implicate his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, since lying under oath is itself a crime. When it becomes apparent to a judge that the witness is about to implicate his Fifth Amendment rights, the testimony is often halted to give the witness time to consult with an attorney. On the other hand, these statements are not considered perjury unless they would materially affect the outcome of the case. For example, lying under oath that you do not wear glasses could be considered perjury when you are testifying about what you have seen. However, it would not be perjury if your witness statement was about what you have heard and not seen. 

If you have further questions about witness statements or perjury, do not hesitate to contact a criminal attorney.