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Law School Case Brief

Bronston v. United States - 409 U.S. 352, 93 S. Ct. 595 (1973)

Rule:

The federal perjury statute is not to be loosely construed, nor the statute invoked simply because a wily witness succeeds in derailing the questioner, so long as the witness speaks the literal truth. The burden is on the questioner to pin the witness down to the specific object of the questioner's inquiry.

Facts:

During a bankruptcy hearing, petitioner, who was the sole owner of a company that produced motion pictures in various European locations between 1958 and 1964, was asked whether he had ever held any personal accounts in Swiss banks. Petitioner replied under oath with an unresponsive and arguably misleading answer that the company of which he was an officer had held an account there. The petitioner was thereafter indicted for perjury and convicted by a jury in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, which the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed the conviction on the ground that, under the federal perjury statute, the petitioner had committed perjury by giving an answer containing half a truth but which also constituted a lie by implication, the answer having been given intentionally in place of the responsive answer called for by the question he had been asked. Petitioner appealed.

Issue:

Did the petitioner commit perjury by giving a misleading and unresponsive answer?

Answer:

No.

Conclusion:

The United States Supreme Court concluded that the legal sufficiency of petitioner's statement did not support a conviction of perjury within the meaning of the statute because, although petitioner did not answer the specific question posed, petitioner nonetheless believed his response to be true. Therefore, the Court held that the jury should not have been permitted to decide petitioner's guilt on whether his unresponsive, yet facially true, answer was intended to mislead the examiner or was false by negative implication. According to the Court, it was the examiner's responsibility to recognize petitioner's evasion and to flush out the truth with the tools of adversary examination.

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