The term “recant” in the legal world means to formally take back or withdraw a prior statement. For example, recant occurs when a witness makes an official statement to, say, the police, and then formally withdraws that statement upon its presentation later in open court. Domestic violence victims sometimes recant their statements to the police when they fear the aftermath of getting their abuser in trouble. To explore this concept, consider the following Recant definition.

Definition of Recant


  1. To withdraw a previously made statement.


1525-1535       Latin    (recantāre)

Recant in Domestic Violence Cases

Recant in domestic violence cases is perhaps one of the most common occurrences of recanting in the legal world. There are many reasons why victims recant. Sometimes they embellish in the heat of the moment to make sure their abuser goes to jail. Other times they were telling the truth, but they fear what the abuser will do to them once released from jail or prison. If the abuser is the sole breadwinner for the household, the victim may fear the abuser will leave her and her children without income. She therefore recants her statement in an attempt to have the charges dropped.

Consider the following example of recant in a domestic violence case:

Robert and Judy get in a fight. Robert loses control of himself, as he is wont to do, and hits Judy. Judy calls the police, and when they arrive, she tells them that her husband was abusing her. The police make a record of Judy’s statement and arrest Robert.

However, at his arraignment, Judy requests the opportunity to recant her statement. She is afraid of Robert, and she fears that if he goes to jail, he may hurt her worse when he gets out. She believes if she has the charges dropped that he will forgive her, and things will go back to normal.

Other Evidence

When a witness wants to recant in a domestic violence case, or any case really, the recantation often goes ignored. This is because a criminal case is not like a civil case wherein the parties can agree to have the case dismissed. Here, the prosecution tries the case. If the prosecution obeyed every witness’ request to recant, no one would go to jail. In fact, the prosecution often has an expert lined up to testify as to the reasons why witnesses recant. The expert’s testimony then strengthens the prosecution’s case.

Just because a witness no longer wishes to cooperate, that does not mean the court will dismiss the criminal case. This is especially true when other evidence is available to prove the defendant’s guilt. In addition to a witness’ statement, the prosecution can use any of the following to make their case:

  • Medical records
  • Eyewitness accounts
  • Police reports
  • Photo evidence of injuries or property damage
  • Audio or video recordings, including the 9-1-1 call

Effects of Recanting

When a witness recants a statement, perhaps the greatest threat the witness is inviting is another threat from the person who did them wrong. In the domestic violence example, a woman who recants a true statement about her abuser risks him abusing her again. Plus, the idea is that someone who is telling the truth is more likely to recant because of fear. This causes the prosecution and the judge to take the recantation even less seriously, and instead go harder after the defendant. The witness also risks prosecution on the charge of making a false statement.

Significant Impact of Recanting

The only time the effects of recanting will cause a significant impact on a case is if the prosecution is wholly relying on that witness’ testimony. If the prosecution’s case cannot survive on its own without that statement, then he may have no choice but to ask the judge to drop the charges.

However, one of the most important effects of recant is that it makes the witness look like a liar. Was he or she lying then, or is he or she lying now? Perhaps worse, why would the witness feel the need to make up such a damaging statement in the first place? Who’s the true bad guy? A witness who is telling the truth and then recants his statement paints himself in a bad light to the judge and jury.

Recant Examples Involving Brett Kavanaugh

Perhaps one of the most popular examples of recant occurring at the Supreme Court level involved the appointment of Brett Kavanaugh as a Supreme Court Justice. During Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing, several women came forward and accused Kavanaugh of past sexual assault. However, presumably because of the circumstances at work, many of Kavanaugh’s accusers ultimately recanted their statements. What follows are three such examples of those recantations.

Judy Munro-Leighton

Judy Munro-Leighton faced prosecution on the charge of making false statements to the Senate Judiciary Committee after she recanted her story. Munro-Leighton had previously told the committee via email that Kavanaugh had sexually assaulted and raped her in his car. She then recanted one month later, saying she had made the whole thing up. Sen. Chuck Grassley said Munro-Leighton was a left-wing activist, and that her story was nothing more than a hoax. Kavanaugh denied the claim.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse

In September of 2018, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse informed the committee that a constituent had contact him regarding a sexual assault claim involving Kavanaugh. Here, the woman claimed that Kavanaugh and another man had raped her on a boat back in August of 1985. Kavanaugh denied the claim, and Whitehouse recanted his statement shortly thereafter.

Julie Swetnick

Julie Swetnick made a sworn declaration in September of 2018 that Kavanaugh, along with others, would “spike” the punch at house parties back in college. Kavanaugh’s purpose in doing so, according to Swetnick, was to rape drunk women who couldn’t fight back. Swetnick then appeared on an NBC News special to change her story and recant her prior statements.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Arraignment – The formal reading of a criminal charge against a defendant in the defendant’s presence. The defendant can then enter a plea of “guilty,” “not guilty,” or “no contest.”
  • Defendant – A party against whom a lawsuit has been filed in civil court, or who has been accused of, or charged with, a crime or offense.
  • Prosecution – The lawyer who is responsible for proving that a person who was accused of a crime is guilty of that crime.
  • Witness – An individual who can provide a firsthand account of something heard, seen, or experienced.