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What actually is considered treason against the United States?

Treason is a rare crime that has a very specific legal definition.
Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — It is not every day someone credibly accuses another of treason in the United States.

Law Professor Leslie Jacobs from the University of the Pacific McGeorge School said treason was only meant to be used in war times when someone acts against the interest of the country.

The U.S. Constitution states:

"Whoever, owing allegiance to the United States, levies war against them or adheres to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort within the United States or elsewhere, is guilty of treason and shall suffer death, or shall be imprisoned not less than five years and fined under this title but not less than $10,000; and shall be incapable of holding any office under the United States."

Jacobs said the law is written in this restrictive way so it does not allow for people to misuse the law.

"They did not want people to be convicted of treason just for expressing their opinion," Jacobs said.

Carlton Larson, a law professor from the University of California Davis Law School, said there are around four main arguments a person can have against a treason charge.

  • They didn't do it.
  • They were coerced.
  • They were insane when they committed treason.
  • What they did was against the state but didn't amount to treason.

Jacobs said that the number of times people were credibly accused of treason is small.

"You need two witnesses of the crime to prove it," Jacobs said. "It was expected that it wouldn't be used much."

There have been around 25 instances where someone was credibly accused of treason in the U.S. history, Jacobs said.

Here are three notable treason cases:

Aaron Burr 1806

Former Vice President Aaron Burr was arrested for plotting with General James Wilkinson, an agent for the Spanish, according to History.com. Burr's accusers suspected that the two conspired to establish a territory of American land to go to Spain.

Burr was acquitted in 1807 for the reason that what he did wasn't on the level of treason.

Julius and Ethel Rosenberg 1950

Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were convicted of conspiring to give U.S. atomic secrets to the Soviet Union according to History.com. They were convicted and executed in 1953.

The two professed their innocence through the trial. Later, David Greenglass, Ethel Rosenberg's brother, confessed to the crime and said he implicated his sister and her husband to protect his wife and children, according to the Atomic Heritage Foundation.

Adam Gadahn 2006

Adam Gadahn was indicted for treason in 2006. He was accused of providing material support to terrorists, according to CNN.

He was not tried because the White House said he was killed with a drone strike in 2015 as part of a government counterterrorism operation.



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