Rafael Palmiero, the first baseman for the Baltimore Orioles and one of only four players to have hit more than 500 homeruns and 3000 hits, testified before the House of Representatives subcommittee on the illegal use of steroids. He looked at the interrogators, pointed at them with all the sincerity he could muster and said, “I have never used steroids.”
Fast forward several months. As a result of random drug testing it is now clear that Palmiero was using steroids.
Newspaper accounts blasted him for hypocrisy and an obvious lie, albeit he now says “he never intentionally used steroids” – an alteration in his statement that is probably impossible to prove.
What the press stories omitted, however, is that Palmiero’s lie was made under oath; in other words, he engaged in the lie of lies or perjury.
Here in unvarnished form is one of the great unmentioned issues of our time. Lying under oath has become a common practice undermining our system of law and justice.
As a dear friend of mine noted when his litigation was slogging through the court system, “Perjury is the problem with America.” As he pointed out, “Our defendant perjured himself in court documents to an astounding level…when we discussed whether this was actionable, most lawyers laughed. ‘Everybody lies. Forget about it. No one cares. Get on with your life.’”
Of course getting on with your life means rejecting fundamental principles on which the nation was founded. Our pledge of allegiance does proudly include “liberty and justice for all.” But what kind of justice is possible if perjury is permissible?
Many lawyers are passively complicit in this practice. After all, the more lies, the more delays, the more tactics to drag out the procedure, the more hours to be billed. At the root of this national problem are judges and district attorneys who allow perjury to occur as standard operating procedure. If perjury isn’t accompanied by an implicit act of enforcement, then it is tantamount to a non-event.
Civil perjury is a crime that has fines and possible imprisonment attached to it, but it is almost never enforced. Like mandatory long-term drug abuse penalties, a potential seven year prison term for perjury often militates against enforcement.
It may seem simplistic, but suppose the court system no longer tolerated lying. Suppose a realistic penalty were imposed, one that was fair and, at the same time, recognized that perjury was an egregious act that undermined our legal system. My suspicion is this would lead to a major transformation – a salutary transformation – in the American legal system.
I can understand why Rafael Palmiero lied before a Congressional Committee. His baseball achievements make him a virtual shoo-in for the Hall of Fame. However, this disclosure about steroid use puts his accomplishments in a new light. He is simply one of those “juiced” athletes who ignored the rules.
The same might be said of hundreds of defendants who believe lying is better than serving a prison sentence or they have rationalized perjury as a legitimate defense position.
If we avert our gaze to this growing problem, America will emerge with a post-modern legal belief that truth can never be obtained. For those who accept this contention, a system without truth is also a system without justice. At that point we might as well rely solely on what defendants tell us and ignore the factual basis for any judicial procedure.
This is a slippery path we are on. Should the public not awaken to the issue our court system could go the way of the dinosaur – an interesting relic of the past, but one that has little relevance to the present.