Thursday, March 1, 2012
The Whole Truth: Court Of Appeals Of Minnesota Finds Trial Court Improperly Rejected Defendant's Oath
Before testifying, every witness shall be required to declare that the witness will testify truthfully, by oath or affirmation administered in a form calculated to awaken the witness' conscience and impress the witness' mind with the duty to do so.
Of course, the traditional oath involves a witness placing his or her hand on the Bible and answering, "I do" to the question, "Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God?" But what if a witness doesn't want to be given this traditional oath for religious or other reasons? What if, for instance, the defendant simply wants to declare, "I solemnly undertake to tell the truth." If the trial court thereafter refuses to allow him to testify, is the defendant entitled to a new trial? According to the recent opinion of the Court of Appeals of Minnesota in State v. Corrigan, 2012 WL 612313 (Minn.App. 2012), the answer is "yes."
In Corrigan, the facts were as stated above, with John Corrigan being convicted of of not driving as nearly as practicable entirely within a single lane of traffic after not being allowed to testify. Corrigan thereafter appealed, claiming, inter alia, that his affirmation was calculated to awaken his conscience and impress his mind with the duty to do so in compliance with Minnesota Rule of Evidence 603.
The Court of Appeals of Minnesota agreed, finding that "[n]o specific language is statutorily required in an affirmation." As support, the court cited its own opinion in State v. Mosby, 450 N.W.2d 629, 633 (Minn.App.1990), for the proposition that "[w]itnesses must be sworn by oath or affirmation.... Affirmation is simply a solemn undertaking to tell the truth; no special verbal formula is required." The court then cited to United States v. Looper, 419 F.2d 1405 (4th Cir.1969), for the proposition that
All that the common law requires is a form or statement which impresses upon the mind and conscience of a witness the necessity for telling the truth. Thus, defendant's privilege to testify may not be denied him solely because he would not accede to a form of oath or affirmation not required by the common law.
The court then concluded that
Similarly, appellant in this case would not take the standard oath, but solemnly stated that he would tell the truth. The court in Looper and this court in Mosby both acknowledged that there is no particular verbal formula for an affirmation, holding instead that the purpose of the oath or affirmation is to emphasize the need for truthfulness. This purpose was clearly met by appellant's offered affirmation. The denial of appellant's testimony by the district court was error.
Finally, the court acknowledged that there was overwhelming evidence of Corrign's guilt but refused to find harmless error because the trial court deprived Corrigan of his Constitutional right to testify on his own behalf.