Supermodel Naomi Campbell issued a statement on Tuesday denying allegations that she lied in her testimony last week during the trial of former Liberian president Charles Taylor. Can the court charge Campbell with perjury?
Yes, but it won’t. Contrary to the AP’s report, there are provisions for prosecuting and penalizing perjury, also known as “false testimony under solemn declaration,” under the Rules of Procedure and Evidence of the Special Court for Sierra Leone. The hybrid domestic-international judicial body, which is trying Taylor for war crimes and crimes against humanity, was established by Sierra Leone and the United Nations to prosecute those responsible for directing and aiding Leonean rebel armies during the country’s bloody decade-long civil war. Taylor is on trial for trafficking in uncut diamonds to supply insurgent forces with weapons, among other things. Prosecutors subpoenaed Campbell to testify about receiving some of the diamonds after a 1997 charity dinner in South Africa and were disappointed by the model’s vague, potentially dishonest account. While she claims only to have received some “very small, dirty-looking stones” from two strangers, other witnesses testified that she bragged about receiving diamonds as a gift from Taylor.
But if the Special Court for Sierra Leone has the power to charge perjury, that power is also circumscribed. The court can launch an investigation only if it has “strong grounds” for believing a witness has “knowingly and willfully” provided false testimony. And it’s the judges, not the prosecutor, who must formally initiate the investigation. They can do this on their own accord or at the prodding of a party. Under Rule 91(C) of the special court’s procedures, the maximum penalty for perjury is a fine of 2 million leones, or about $520; two years imprisonment; or both. Although the rule was taken nearly verbatim from the International Criminal Tribunals for Rwanda and Yugoslavia, those courts impose much stiffer penalties.
If the judges were to act against Campbell, they would likely begin by directing the registrar of the court to appoint an independent counsel to look into the matter and report back on whether there are sufficient grounds to proceed. But experts predict that there is almost no chance of an investigation. Perjury charges against witnesses are relatively rare, even in the United States, and the Special Court for Sierra Leone has considered such a proceeding only once before. International tribunals are generally understaffed and resource-poor, and they are not in the business of chasing after witnesses for crimes against the administration of justice, so long as such offenses do not begin to undermine the authority of the court. The exception that proves the rule is a case at the Rwanda tribunal in which a formerly protected witness known as GAA openly confessed to having lied in a previous proceeding and was convicted for false testimony and contempt with a sentence of nine months in prison. In general, however, perjury inquiries can be a costly sideshow and distract from the prosecution of core offenses like genocide or, in Taylor’s case, sending rebels to murder, rape, maim, and enslave the people of Sierra Leone.
Plus, perjury is just really hard to prove. The prosecutor must isolate a specific false statement, made willfully and in response to a specific question. If the witness hedges at all—for instance, saying “to the best of my recollection”—then that’s good enough to save her. To convict, a court needs hard evidence of the statement’s falsity, not just contradictory testimony from another witness. In the United States, in the absence of more definitive proof, courts typically require at least two credible witnesses to refute the contested testimony and evidence of a motive to mislead the court.
In the end, it all comes down to how important the statement Campbell made was to the case against Taylor, how blatant or premeditated her alleged lie was, and how much opportunity she had to correct herself. Even if Campbell’s version of the blood diamond hand-off is demonstrably false, given the length of time since the incident and the nature of the disputed details it would be exceedingly difficult to prove that she’s guilty of anything beyond having a faulty memory. In any case, trial watchers say that a perjury proceeding would do little to strengthen the prosecution’s case here. By bringing in the actress Mia Farrow and Campbell’s former agent to refute her, the prosecution has effectively discredited the model’s testimony. When the judges convene at the end of the trial, they can simply disregard any testimony they believe to be unreliable.
Slate thanks Michael Bohlander of Durham Law School, Nancy Combs of William & Mary Law School, Alexander Zahar of Griffith Law School, and the Open Society Justice Initiative.