Treason is a concept that doesn’t come up often in public discussion. As often happens, it’s the role of cinema and television to bring attention to topics like this as part of exceptional stories that reveal aspects of reality not known to everybody. It’s what happened in 2022 with the Netflix TV show Treason, starring the actor Charlie Cox who became famous as Marvel’s Daredevil, a successful series that arrived after the important results of The Recruit, another Netflix series about spy stories and secret services. The series focuses on this crime from the UK’s point of view, but the concept is similar in the USA, although the penalty and the punishment are different in this case. Let’s discover what this crime is according to US laws.
What is treason: definition, penalty and punishment examples in the USA
According to the dictionary, treason is the crime of betraying a nation, by acts considered dangerous to national security. It is considered “the highest of all crime” and typically involves the highest offices in a national government or important roles in the secret services or the military.
You can commit treason in many ways: instigating rebellions against the government, helping actively the country’s enemies, revealing classified information that could cause a threat to national security, plotting with other governments, and so on.
Being convicted in the USA requires a pretty complicated procedure. According to the Constitution, “treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying war against them, or in adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort. No person shall be convicted of treason unless on the testimony of two witnesses to the same overt act, or on confession in open court.”
The penalty, however, is very severe. The American Federal law includes the death penalty as a possibility for people convicted of treason. Alternatively, the penalty can be a long period of imprisonment, a fine, and exclusion from every public office. It’s worth noting that no one was ever sentenced to death for treason under federal law.
However, also state law defines treason as a crime against a single state and could indicate a different degree of punishment. In states like Arkansas, California, Georgia, and Louisiana, for example, a convicted person will face the death penalty or life imprisonment.
There have been some cases of people sentenced to death after being convicted of treason against a US State (so not under Federal Law): the abolitionist John Brown, for example, was hanged in 1859 after being accused of treason against Virginia, murder, and insurrection. The same destiny applied to Aaron Dwight Stevens, who participated in John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry.