Can Brian Williams Go to Jail for Perjury?
NBC just announced that its premier anchor, Brian Williams, will be suspended for 6 months from his desk at NBC Nightly News. The move comes after Williams was caught in several lies (or as he calls them, “conflations”) he told regarding what happened when he was on a military helicopter in Iraq in 2003. Essentially, he claimed for years to multiple outlets that he was on board a helicopter that was attacked by a rocket propelled grenade (RPG). He also claimed that the chopper immediately in front of his was downed by an RPG. None of these accounts are true, and were disputed by military engineers who were actually aboard the downed aircraft. The reality is that Brian Williams was on board a Chinook helicopter that arrived to the crash site of a downed helicopter a half hour after it made an emergency landing after encountering enemy fire, meaning that Williams was nowhere near the helicopter that was actually attacked.
This is clearly an embarrassment for NBC and Williams. Any major network newscast strives to follow the legacy created by men like Walter Cronkite, who was nicknamed “the most trusted man in news.” When a featured national newsman like Williams gets caught in a lie, it is a really big deal. So, can Williams be charged criminally with perjury? The answer is no.
It is a common misconception that if a person makes a statement that is proven to be false, he or she has committed the criminal offense of perjury. If this were true, the court dockets of America would be so overwhelmed with cases that the wheels of justice would come to a cranking halt. People lie all the time. The reality is that perjury, while very serious (a felony in Colorado), is very rarely prosecuted. Here’s the Colorado definition of perjury: A person commits perjury if, in any official proceeding, he knowingly makes a materially false statement, which he does not believe to be true, under an oath required or authorized by law. Colorado Revised Statutes 18-8-502(1). I underline the key words to show why perjury is unique- it requires the false statement to me made under oath in some official proceeding. This usually means that a person must be sworn in as a witness in a legal matter or through a binding legal affidavit in order to be criminally charged with telling a lie.
It’s Tough to Prove
Another component of perjury is that the prosecution has to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the teller of the lie knew the statement to be false. This can also be difficult, because there is a fine line between being able to prove that the teller is lying or rather simply mistaken about the facts at issue. Also, if a person recounts multiple versions of the same story, they may be inconsistent, but not affirmatively lying about what happened. Perjury cases, in other words, are rarely open and shut.
Coming back to Brian Williams, because he never lied in an official legal proceeding under oath, he cannot be criminally charged with perjury. If he testified about this incident in, for example, a congressional hearing tasked with investigating this incident, he would have exposure to perjury because he would be under oath. Even still, the government would have to prove that he was lying and not simply mistaken about the facts of what happened, and this would be no easy feat. However, you don’t need to be charged with perjury in order to suffer the mistrust of the American public. In Brian Williams’ case, it will be interesting to see whether he will ever have the opportunity to regain that trust.