Napue v. Illinois, 360 U.S. 264 (1959)

In Napue, the Supreme Court held that the Fourteenth Amendment due process clause bars prosecutors from knowingly presenting false testimony and obligates them to correct such testimony when it occurs.

The prosecution alleged that Napue participated in a robbery that resulted in the death of a police officer. At Napue’s murder trial, the prosecution’s star witness was Hamer, one of the other robbers, who had already been convicted and sentenced to 199 years in prison. The prosecutor recommended a reduction in Hamer’s sentence in exchange for his testimony against Napue, but Hamer falsely testified at Napue’s trial that the prosecutor had made no such promises. After Napue was convicted, he discovered that the prosecutor had promised to help Hamer, but the state courts refused to grant Napue a new trial.

Napue appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which unanimously and emphatically reversed. The Court stressed that a defendant’s due process rights are violated both when a prosecutor knowingly presents false testimony and when he knowingly fails to correct such perjury. The Court also held that the same rule applies even when the false testimony concerns only the witness’s credibility, since ‘‘a lie is a lie, no matter what its subject.’’ The emphasis in Napue, and in Alcorta v. Texas (1957), on the prosecutor’s duty to present the truth paved the way for the Court’s later cases, such as Brady v. Maryland (1963) and Kyles v. Whitley (1995), requiring the prosecution to disclose evidence favorable to the defendant.

DAVID A. MORAN

References and Further Reading

  • Imwinkelried, Edwin, and Norman Garland. Exculpatory Evidence. 2nd ed. Charlottesville, VA: Michie, 1996.
  • Stacy, Tom, The Search for Truth in Constitutional Criminal Procedure, Columbia Law Review 91 (1991): 1369.

Cases and Statutes Cited

See also Alcorta v. Texas, 355 U.S. 28 (1957); Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963); Due Process; Fourteenth Amendment; Kyles v. Whitley, 514 U.S. 419 (1995)

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