Last March, Brian Allen Richardson decided to testify in his own defense at his Prince George's County Circuit Court trial for housebreaking. He walked to the witness stand, raised his right hand and swore under penalty of perjury that he would tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
Richardson then sat down and told the jury that he did not break into the Beltsville house, as prosecutor Bob Harvey had alleged. Richardson said he had spent the night of the alleged offense drinking with friends at the Varsity Grill in College Park-- and he produced a friend, Marvin Lee Freeman, who corroborated his story.
Richardson seemed to have the perfect alibi -- until a bookstore manager named Sherry Rutherford took the stand and testified that the Varsity Grill did not exist on Sept. 25, 1980, because it had been purchased and converted into a Crown Books store a month earlier. Richardson was convicted of housebreaking after the jury deliberated 10 minutes.
Stories like the one of the vanished Varsity Grill are not uncommon in the Prince George's courts. Judges and lawyers say people tell inaccurate stories day after day from the witness stand, sometimes because of poor memories but often because of fear of jail, greed -- or simply because they believe they can get away with it.
"Some people think the courts are settings for Tennessee story-swapping contests," says Circuit Court Judge Vincent Femia. "Whoever tells the best tale prevails."
Yet in most cases prosecutors do not charge trial witnesses with perjury in Prince George's, although one Circuit Court judge, Howard S. Chasanow, takes justice into his own hands by imposing harsher sentences for defendants who clearly have lied.
Judges say perjury perturbs them because the court system is founded on the witness' oath to tell the truth. When a witness doesn't, the likelihood increases that juries will convict the innocent or refuse to convict the guilty. In civil cases, perjury can result in persons who do not deserve it getting money awards, or persons not getting awards they do deserve.
In most cases when juries turn in verdicts, prosecutors and judges say, the implication is that the jurors did not believe one side or the other. But simply being on the losing side of a case would rarely lead to prosecution for the crime of perjury. To charge someone with that crime requires concrete evidence, such as a document or contradictory testimony by two witnesses about a fact that is central to the case.
County prosecutors say they don't usually charge trial witnesses with perjury because there is often the possibility that the witness suffered a memory lapse, and because the court calendar is crowded enough.
"One of the first things you learn in law school is that you have to have malicious intent," says State's Attorney Arthur A. Marshall Jr. "That's difficult to prove in a lot of perjury cases."
In the Varsity Grill case, prosecutor Harvey saw the important elements necessary for a perjury prosecution -- evidence of intent to lie, the contradictory testimony of two witnesses or a document disproving the witness' testimony. He chose not to charge Richardson with perjury, he says, because Richardson received a five-year sentence anyway, which Harvey says was punishment enough. Harvey says he did not charge Richardson's friend, Freeman, with perjury because Freeman had to go to trial on a separate housebreaking charge.
Prosecutors do, however, charge people with perjury when they lie in court outside of trial settings -- if they want a marriage license, for instance, swear they are not married and later turn out to be bigamists.
The last time a trial witness was charged with perjury in Prince George's was in 1972, when a District Heights woman told Judge Femia she could not have stabbed a neighbor because she was in her doctor's office at the time. Her story was corroborated by a friend who said she drove the woman to the doctor's office.
Judge Femia acquitted the woman of the assault charge, but months later she returned to court on a perjury indictment because the doctor, Ronald Hairston, told then-prosecutor Richard Palumbo the woman was not in his office and, in fact, had offered to have sex with him if he would lie for her. The woman was convicted of perjury and sentenced to 10 years in prison -- a longer sentence than she would have received for the assault charge.
Because of the reluctance of prosecutors to charge trial witnesses with perjury, Judge Chasanow says he has developed his own system for dealing with liars. In March, for example, Chasanow gave Steven Ricardo Tillman a 27-year sentence for armed robbery -- about twice the sentence suggested by the Maryland sentencing guidelines.
" . . . The defendant took the witness stand, was contemptuous, refused to answer probitive questions and lied about such basic established facts as his prior record," Chasanow wrote in explaining why he exceeded the suggested sentence.
There are limits to even Chasanow's willingness to punish witnesses for perjury. For instance, Chasanow says he usually does not impose a harsher sentence for defendants who perjure themselves and are convicted of first-degree murder. "How much more can you add to a life sentence?" he asks.
Although judges can impose harsher sentences for perjury, the Maryland Court of Appeals ruled recently that judges cannot interfere with questionable stories being told in court. In September, the appeals court overturned the murder conviction of Larry Rudolph Marshall of Worcester County because trial court Judge Daniel T. Prettyman had interfered with Marshall's defense when he said, "You are trying now to testify differently from what you said on Nov. 13, and I'll issue a bench warrant charging you with perjury if you persist."
Defendants are not the only ones who sometimes perjure themselves. Years ago, says Appeals Court Judge Dudley Digges, the Maryland Court of Appeals reversed the conviction of a Prince George's man for stealing car tires because his accuser was over-zealous in his desire for a conviction. The plaintiff claimed he knew the tires were his because he had written the tire numbers on his check when he purchased them. An FBI expert testified that the numbers had been written after the check was cancelled.
Circuit Court Judge Jacob S. Levin says plaintiffs can be as guilty of perjury as defendants. "Everyone," says Levin, "had the green light, stopped for the stop sign, and now has a backache or headache."