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Case Basics
Docket No. 
United States
(on behalf of the Petitioner)
(Argued the cause for the petitioner)
(Department of Justice, argued the cause for the respondent)
Facts of the Case 

While testifying before a federal grand jury, which was investigating the disposition of proceeds from the alleged drug trafficking of her boyfriend Earl James Fields, Joyce B. Johnson testified that she had received a box of cash that she had used to fund home improvements. Subsequently, Johnson was indicted for perjury under federal law, which proscribes "knowingly mak[ing] any false material declaration" under oath before a grand jury. Johnson did not object when the District Court judge instructed the jury that materiality was a question for him to decide, and that he had determined that her statements were material. Afterwards, Johnson was convicted of perjury. However, before her appeal, the Supreme Court handed down a precedent that a jury, rather than a trial judge, must decide the materiality of a false statement. The Court of Appeals concluded the District Court judge had erred, but that any such error did not affect "substantial rights" because its independent review of the record showed that there was overwhelming evidence of materiality and that no reasonable juror could conclude that Johnson's false statements about the money's source were not material to the grand jury's investigation.


Must criminal convictions for perjury be reversed when a trial judge fails to let the jury rule on whether the underlying statements were material?

Decision: 9 votes for United States, 0 vote(s) against
Legal provision: Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure (or relevant rules of a circuit court)

No. In an opinion delivered by Chief Justice William J. Rehnquist, the Court held that the trial court's action in this case was not "plain error" of the sort which an appellate court may notice under Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 52(b). The Court reasoned that there was no basis, on the record, for concluding that the materiality error had seriously affected the fairness, integrity, or public reputation of judicial proceedings, in that the evidence supporting materiality was overwhelming. "No 'miscarriage of justice' will result here if we do not notice the error and we decline to do so," concluded Chief Justice Rehnquist.

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JOHNSON v. UNITED STATES. The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law. 26 August 2015. <>.
JOHNSON v. UNITED STATES, The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law, (last visited August 26, 2015).
"JOHNSON v. UNITED STATES," The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law, accessed August 26, 2015,