Presidential Assassination

On Sept. 6, 1901, anarchist Leon Czolgosz fired two shots from a .32 caliber revolver into the abdomen of U.S. President William McKinley. Czolgosz did so at close range. McKinley died eight days later from gangrene. The gunshot wound led to the infection. Czolgosz was quickly caught after the shooting. 

He was sentenced to death: A jury found him guilty of presidential assassination.

Of course, the assassination of the president of the United States is a crime. It is not surprising that it is a crime against the government. While it has happened infrequently in the United States, the government takes it extremely seriously. Courts penalize it with tremendous severity. The crime is constituted by several elements, all of which entail the most severe penalties.

In American history, there have been only four U.S. Presidents assassinated:

  • Abraham Lincoln, in 1865 by John Wilkes Booth
  • James Garfield, in 1881 by Charles J. Guiteau
  • William McKinley
  • John F. Kennedy, in 1963 by Lee Harvey Oswald (some conspiracy theorists disagree)

Continue reading to learn more about American presidential assassination. This article examines the law's specifics and how the U.S. Code treats assassination attempts. It also looks at other matters related to this serious federal crime.

Presidential Assassination and the U.S. Code

The federal law prohibiting presidential assassination is in 18 U.S.C § 1751. The law also bans the assassination of the president or president-elect and the vice president or vice president-elect. The statute also refers to prohibitions on killing “the officer next in the order of succession to the Office of the President of the United States." The law also applies to the president's (and vice president's) appointed staff. This includes cabinet members or the senior-most staff members. This part of the United States Code protects these people.

The prosecution need not prove motive as long as the act was intentional. Anyone found guilty of assassinating the American president (or any other parties listed above) faces either the death penalty or life imprisonment.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) investigates assassination cases. The FBI may seek help from other federal, state, or local agencies. This includes the branches of the U.S. Armed Forces. The Secret Service may get involved, as well.

Attempted Assassination and Other Related Offenses

The actual murder of the president is not the only offense listed under this particular code section. Other crimes against the president and other officials covered by this statute include:

  • Kidnapping — Up to life imprisonment or capital punishment if the kidnapping results in death
  • Attempted assassination or attempted kidnapping — Up to life imprisonment for attempted assassination or kidnapping
  • Conspiracy to assassinate or kidnap by two or more people — Up to life imprisonment (or capital punishment if it results in death) if one or more individuals commit an actual act to further the conspiracy
  • Assault — Fines and imprisonment of up to 10 years (or up to one year if the assault victim is a member of the president or vice president's appointed staff)

Such assassinations are a federal offense. So, defendants face trial in federal court. This is a particularly serious area of criminal law. Criminal justice, in this realm, is taken very seriously. The U.S. government takes such an offense very seriously. The White House and the Secret Service take severe measures to prevent crimes like these. Under the United States Code, the assassination of the president is penalized in the harshest ways.

The Department of Justice will orchestrate the prosecution. The U.S. attorney general will head the prosecutorial team. The trial will often take place in Washington, D.C., or a court in Virginia. When such an assault occurs on the head of the executive branch of the U.S. government, the accused assassins face harsh penalties. Under the laws of the United States, many law enforcement agencies will get involved in the investigation. A grand jury will indict the defendant before an actual trial happens.

Presidential Assassinations in U.S. History

There have been attempts or plots to assassinate 18 of the 46 U.S. presidents. As was mentioned above, only four presidents died of assassination. President Abraham Lincoln's assassin fled the scene and was later killed during a chase, while his co-conspirators were convicted and hanged. President Andrew Garfield's assassin was convicted and hanged nine months after the president's death. Finally, President John F. Kennedy's assassin Oswald was murdered by a vigilante after federal officials captured Oswald.

The most recent attack on a president resulting in actual injury to a president was against President Ronald Reagan on March 30, 1981. Reagan, who suffered serious injuries from a single gunshot, fully recovered. John Hinckley Jr., who was found not guilty by reason of insanity, was released from institutional psychiatric care in 2016.

Charged with a crime? An Attorney Can Help

Charges of presidential assassination and other crimes of this magnitude are quite rare. But you will need a skilled legal defense attorney if you get charged with crimes against the federal government. Get a handle on your case today by meeting with a local defense attorney.

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