Top Federal Crimes that Result in the Death Penalty

American flag depicting top federal crimes

Did you know that there are two crimes in this country that can earn you the death penalty, even if you don’t kill anyone?

All of the other serious federal crimes for which the death penalty is one possible sentence involve either murder or the wrongful death of someone else. However, these two, at the top of the list below, are the exception.

Can you guess what they are?

Top Federal Crimes That Can Result in the Death Penalty

Treason and Espionage

We hear these two terms in spy shows and think we know what they mean. However, the definitions are actually quite detailed, especially for espionage. It turns out, there are quite a few ways someone could commit the crime of espionage.

18 U.S. Code § 2381 – Treason

According to United States Code, “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.”

The definition of treason is pretty straightforward. In order to commit treason, you have to be actively working against your country. You have to be “levying war” or aiding those who are. Our nation considers this a serious enough offense that you may lose your life, however, if you choose to do so.

18 U.S. Code Chapter 37 – Espionage and Censorship

This is where things get more interesting. There are a number of sections in the United States Code about espionage which define what constitutes it. We know it commonly as spying. The danger it poses to the national security of any country makes it illegal. However, countries routinely practice espionage toward other countries.

Espionage is the act of obtaining secrets or confidential information without the permission or knowledge of the information’s holder. An individual can commit espionage or a group of individuals can commit espionage.

Here, we are primarily concerned with any forms of espionage conducted against the United States government by its own citizens. In addition, although our federal government can hand down the death penalty to someone convicted of espionage, all inmates currently under federal death sentences were convicted of aggravated murder, not treason or espionage.

Other activities included in the definition of espionage include:

  • § 792 – Harboring or concealing persons who have gathered, lost, transmitted or delivered defense information to a foreign government.
  • § 793 – Gathering, transmitting or losing defense information.
  • § 794 – Gathering or delivering defense information to aid foreign government.
  • § 795 – Photographing and sketching defense installations.
  • § 796 – Use of aircraft for photographing defense installations.
  • § 797 – Publication and sale of photographs of defense installations
  • § 798 – Disclosure of classified information.
  • § 799 – Violation of regulations of National Aeronautics and Space Administration.


In conclusion, the federal government does take these crimes very seriously. Seriously enough to have as a possible sentence the death penalty for committing one of them.

Although these aren’t crimes just any person can commit, if you do find yourself facing federal charges for treason or espionage, it’s imperative that you find an experienced federal criminal defense attorney right away.

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