On Sept. 6, 1901, self-described anarchist Leon Czolgosz fired two shots from a .32 caliber revolver into the abdomen of U.S. President William McKinley at close range. The President, who often appeared in public without adequate security, died eight days later from gangrene caused by the abdominal wounds. The assailant, Czolgosz, was quickly apprehended after the shooting and eventually sentenced to death after a jury found him guilty of presidential assassination.
It is likely no surprise to anyone that assassination of the President of the United States is a crime against the government. This article looks at the specifics of the law and how the U.S. Code treats assassination attempts and other matters related to this serious federal crime.
Presidential Assassination and the U.S. Code
The federal law prohibiting presidential assassination is found in 18 U.S.C § 1751. In addition to assassination of the President, it also covers such acts against the President-elect, Vice President, Vice President-elect, "or, if there is no Vice President, the officer next in the order of succession to the Office of the President of the United States." The law applies to members of the President's (and Vice President's) appointed staff (i.e,. cabinet members) as well.
It is not necessary for the defendant in an assassination case to know that the victim was in fact protected by the statute, which means the prosecution need not prove motive as long as the act was intentional. Anyone found guilty of assassinating the President (or any of the other parties listed above) faces either the death penalty -- as in the case of President McKinley's assassin Czolgosz -- or life imprisonment.
Assassination cases are investigated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), which may seek assistance from any other federal, state, or local agencies (including the branches of the U.S. Armed Forces).
Attempted Assassination and Other Related Offenses
The actual murder of the President is not the only offense listed under this particular code section. Other offenses pertaining to the President and other officials covered by this statute include the following:
- Kidnapping -- Up to life imprisonment or, if the kidnapping results in death, capital punishment.
- 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 of more of the individuals commits an actual act in furtherance of the conspiracy.
- Assault -- Fines and/or 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).
Presidential Assassinations in U.S. History
There have been attempts or plots to assassinate 18 of the 45 (as of 2017) U.S. Presidents and four successful assassinations. In addition to President McKinley, the other Presidents who have been killed include Abraham Lincoln, James A. Garfield, and John F. Kennedy. President Lincoln's assassin fled the scene and was later killed during a manhunt, while his co-conspirators were convicted and hanged. President Garfield's assassin was convicted and hanged nine months after the President's death. Finally, President Kennedy's alleged assassin Lee Harvey Oswald was murdered by a vigilante after Oswald was apprehended by federal officials.
The most recent attack on a President resulting in actual injury to the intended target was committed by John Hinckley, Jr. against President Ronald Reagan on March 30, 1981. Reagan, who suffered serious injuries from a single gunshot, fully recovered. Hinckley, who was found not guilty by reason of insanity, was released from institutional psychiatric care in 2016.
Get a Free Legal Evaluation of Your Criminal Case
Charges of presidential assassination and other crimes of this magnitude are quite rare. But if you have been charged with any other crimes against the federal government, you will mostly certainly need a skilled legal defense attorney. Get a handle on your case today with a free legal review from a local attorney.