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Lewinsky Allegations Are Turning Esoteric Terms Into Household Words

By Joan Biskupic
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 25, 1998; Page A17

The allegations that former White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky had an affair with President Clinton and then was urged to lie about it under oath have thrust into public view an esoteric legal process and its accompanying jargon.

"Most people think that you just give her immunity and she comes in and tells the truth," said a former associate independent counsel. "Even many lawyers seem woefully ignorant of this 'proffer' process."

"Proffer" is only one of the many legal terms being bandied about. Here are some commonly asked questions relating to the legal issues:

What is a "proffer"?

A proffer refers to the offer of testimony or evidence from a witness. In this context, it would be information from Lewinsky partially revealing what she could give independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr in return for "immunity" (protection from prosecution based on her testimony). This routinely used process allows the prosecutor to know in advance what sort of testimony he would get from a witness and if it could lead to the prosecution of others. In the parlance of government lawyers, this is also known as "queen for a day" because whatever the witness provides in the proffer on that day is shielded from prosecution.

What does "immunity" mean? And what is the trade-off for a prosecutor and witness when an immunity agreement is struck?

A witness can be granted immunity from prosecution in exchange for his or her testimony before a grand jury. Starr reportedly had offered Lewinsky complete immunity if she would cooperate with his investigation by confirming allegations that she had an affair with the president and by helping gather other evidence. That would have meant that Lewinsky would be free from prosecution for anything related to the allegations.

A more limited type of immunity is "use" immunity, which would only protect Lewinsky from having her testimony and any leads derived from it used against her. Prosecutors still could build a case against her using information from other sources.

A person granted immunity gives up his or her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination and must answer all questions. For a prosecutor who waives the opportunity to charge a particular witness, the trade-off presumably is information that leads to a case against someone suspected of a more serious crime.

Lewinsky has been told she could face possible charges of "perjury," "witness tampering" and "obstruction of justice." What does that mean?

Lewinsky could be subject to perjury charges if she lied when she signed an affidavit in the Paula Jones case. There are reports that she denied having a sexual relationship with Clinton in that affidavit. Witness tampering and obstruction of justice -- charges relating to acts that impede a criminal investigation or other legal process -- could possibly arise from a document Lewinsky reportedly gave to Pentagon colleague Linda R. Tripp that referred to possible points to make in an affidavit Tripp was scheduled to give in the Jones case.

If people urged Lewinsky or Tripp to lie in their affidavits, those people could be charged with subornation of perjury. What does that mean?

Subornation of perjury occurs when someone asks another person to lie while under oath. To prove this charge, a prosecutor would have to show both that an individual knowingly lied under oath and that the perjured statement was sought by the accused person.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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