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Justices Rule in West Virginia Case on Longer Sentences for Perjury

February 23, 1993

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Supreme Court ruled today that federal judges must give longer sentences to defendants found to have lied on the witness stand.

The court, ruling unanimously in a West Virginia case, said such stiffer sentences in federal cases are constitutional.

″We have held on a number of occasions that a defendant’s right to testify does not include a right to commit perjury,″ Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote for the court.

In other action, the court:

-Ruled that states may impose sales taxes on the $84 billion business of leasing of cargo containers used exclusively for international shipments.

-Gave prosecutors a victory in a dispute over the 180-day deadline for trying criminal defendants serving time in another state. It ruled that the clock doesn’t start running until the prosecutors get the request.

-Threw out a three-judge federal court’s reapportionment plan for Minnesota’s elections of state legislators and members of Congress.

In perjury cases, federal sentencing guidelines require a longer sentence when a judge determines a defendant lied at trial.

″The enhancement is far from automatic,″ Kennedy wrote, because judges must make detailed findings to justify a lengthened sentence if the defendant contests it.

Today’s ruling reinstates Sharon Dunnigan’s 51-month prison sentence on a cocaine-trafficking conviction. The trial judge had lengthened Dunnigan’s sentence after ruling that she obstructed justice by lying when she testified in her own defense.

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals threw out the sentence in 1991, saying it violated Dunnigan’s constitutional rights. The prospect of a longer prison term could unfairly discourage defendants from testifying in their own behalf, the appeals court said.

Eight other federal appeals courts had upheld the practice of imposing longer sentences when a judge believes a defendant lied on the witness stand.

Government lawyers, in asking the Supreme Court to reverse the 4th Circuit court’s ruling, argued that sentencing judges traditionally have been allowed to consider any relevant information, including whether a defendant committed perjury.

Today, the Supreme Court said the threat of a longer sentence for committing perjury does not violate a defendant’s right to decide whether to testify or remain silent. There is no ban on every governmental action that may affect a defendant’s strategic decisions, Kennedy wrote for the court.

He added, ″The requirement of sworn testimony, backed by punishment for perjury, is as much a protection for the accused as it is a threat.″

Dunnigan was convicted of conspiring to distribute cocaine as part of a Charleston, W.Va., drug ring broken up in 1988. Dunnigan pleaded not guilty to the charge, and during her trial denied ever buying, selling or using cocaine.

Other witnesses testified about drug transactions with Dunnigan. Among them was Edward Dickerson, who testified for the government that he bought crack cocaine from Dunnigan at her apartment in a transaction monitored by drug enforcement agents.

In sentencing Dunnigan, U.S. District Judge John Copenhayer Jr. increased her prison term after ruling that she obstructed justice by lying during her trial testimony.

The Supreme Court today said there was ample evidence to support Copenhayer’s decision.

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