Perjury At Common Law
Although false swearing or "bearing false witness" has been considered a spiritual offense since at least biblical times, perjury did not become a secular crime in England until much more recently. In the Middle Ages, witnesses as we know them did not exist. The witnesses were the jurors, and so it was the verdict, not a particular witness, that was either true or false. Correspondingly, it was the jurors, not the witnesses, who would be punished for a "false" or "perjurious" verdict. By the sixteenth century, when the modern trial by an independent and impartial jury began to emerge, perjury by witnesses also came to be punished separately, first by the Court of Star Chamber and later by English common law courts. By the mid-seventeenth century, common law perjury was defined as swearing falsely, under oath, in a judicial proceeding, about a material issue. This same definition of perjury was generally incorporated into early American common law and statutes.