Imagine someone is arrested, detained, then brought into a court room and asked to swear that they will tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, and the defendant says, “No, I do not.”

Assuming this disqualifies them from legitimately standing trial and counts as refusal to participate, if they are charged with contempt of court, will the sentence for this (the punishment) be based on what kind of sentence they would be facing for the original crime?

Because, if it were not, then someone facing at least a decade of prison time could refuse to participate. If the punishment for contempt of court was only a year or two, then there would be an incentive to do this.

On the other hand, if the sentence for contempt of court is larger for heavier crimes, does this have the judicial problem that you may be punishing them more severely for something no court has even proven they have done, since no trial ever occurred? Like, if someone innocent was charged with murder, and refused to stand trial, and was then charged with severe contempt of court correlating to the penalty for murder, wouldn’t that imply that to avoid letting them get off the hook, you should basically sentence them to life in prison, since that’s what they would get if tried with murder anyway? And yet, now you have sentences someone innocent to life in prison, without even having the chance to determine if there is even remotely sound evidence that they are guilty of anything.

Furthermore: if you are charged with contempt of court, isn’t that, ad infinitum, a charge that you then just stand trial for? I assume this means that there is a way to convict someone of something, even if they do not participate in their trial and hence, never really had a real trial (I think). But if so, then why not just invoke that for the original crime - they refused to participate, but we can still charge them with a crime anyway. Isn’t it considered a right to never be convicted of a crime without standing trial?

2 Answers 2


This does not disqualify defendants from standing trial, because under the Fifth Amendment, the defendant can not be compeled to testify. Only when testifying does the defendant have to be sworn in. Even a defendant acting as his own lawyer does not have to be sworn in.

Consequently, any contempt of court charges would be based on wasting the court's time by pretending to be willing to testify. The sentence for the severity of the crime would be based on whether the defendant was convicted.


If you refuse to participate, the trial will go on without your participation

You have the right to defend yourself. If you chose to waive that right, by not participating, say, then, after giving you every opportunity to change your mind, the trial will proceed without your participation.

For your particular example, you will not be allowed to testify. You have the right to testify but, if you refuse to play by the rules, you waive that right.

It’s unlikely you would be charged with contempt.

Contempt is its own crime with its own punishment

Should you do something that gets you charged with contempt, then you will have a different trial for that charge. Same rules apply.

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