Assassination (Forensic Science)
Even a brief look at the history of assassination suggests the important role forensic science could have played in providing objective information as to cause of death in various assassinations. In ancient times, many assassinations were committed at very short range, as were many other murders. Victims were stabbed, strangled, or clubbed to death, and often the assassins, like other murderers, were quickly identified and apprehended. Philip II of Macedonia (382-336 b.c.e.) and Julius Caesar (100-44 b.c.e.) are only two of a long list of political leaders assassinated in ancient times.
Given the likely apprehension of assassins who used such short-range killing techniques as stabbing or strangling, poisoning became a widely used alternative. Although it required that the assassin gain immediate access to the target, poisoning constituted a much less obvious attack, and proving that someone had been poisoned was difficult after the fact. In the cases of such assassinations, better forensic science would have been helpful in the apprehension of the perpetrators. In modern times, the facts revealed through forensic science in the poisoning deaths of Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov (poisoned with ricin) in 1978 and Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko (poisoned with polonium 210) in 2006 pointed to the killers, implicating, in both cases, the secret police forces in Russia (under communist rule in 1978 and under the more “democratic”...
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American Assassinations (Forensic Science)
The importance and the limitations of forensic science in the investigation of assassinations are clear in the modern era and in the United States, where law-enforcement resources make exhaustive investigations possible. In the cases of the assassinations of U.S. presidents James A. Garfield and William McKinley, in 1881 and 1901, respectively, the role of forensic science was small, as both were shot at close range by individuals who were captured immediately. The fact that the assassins of both presidents were obviously deranged obscured the political aspects of these events, but the questions raised by these assassinations later motivated attempts to use forensic psychology to construct profiles of persons who become assassins.
In the case of President Abraham Lincoln, dozens of spectators saw John Wilkes Booth, a well-known actor, leap from the president’s box at Ford’s Theatre after Booth fired the fatal shot. Better forensic science than was available in 1865 could have been helpful in resolving another aspect of the case, however. Booth escaped from the theater and from Washington, D.C., despite having injured his leg when he jumped from the president’s box. Law-enforcement officials pursued Booth and eventually cornered him—or at least a person they believed to be him—in a barn in Virginia. Before they could take Booth into custody, the barn burned down, presumably with Booth inside. Although a...
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Uses and Limitations of Forensic Science (Forensic Science)
Three major assassinations in recent American history provide ample examples of the uses of a wide variety of forensic scientific techniques in attempts to find objective evidence about these crimes. In the 1968 assassinations of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., and Senator Robert F. Kennedy, the purported assassins (James Earl Ray and Sirhan Sirhan, respectively) were apprehended, convicted of the crimes, and sentenced to imprisonment for life. A preponderance of the forensic evidence in each case clearly supports the conclusion that the accused man was involved in the assassination—probably by actually pulling the trigger. However, the forensic evidence available so far cannot reveal whether anyone else might have been involved in either case. Both Ray and Sirhan denied their guilt and sought new trials. Ray died in 1998 without achieving his goal of a new trial, and Sirhan has had no success in gaining a retrial.
In the case of James Earl Ray, the heart of the issue turned on Ray’s contention that he was set up as a fall guy by other conspirators who have never been found. Ray was the principal witness to the existence of any conspirators. Sirhan’s case is more complicated, as he clearly fired a gun in the direction of Senator Kennedy and was seized at the scene. Some conspiracy theorists, however, question whether any of the shots Sirhan fired at Kennedy actually struck him. They argue...
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Further Reading (Forensic Science)
Ayton, Mel. The Forgotten Terrorist: Sirhan Sirhan and the Assassination of Robert F. Kennedy. Washington, D.C.: Potomac Books, 2007. Comprehensive review of the Robert F. Kennedy assassination supports the view that Sirhan, a Palestinian, was the assassin, motivated by his hatred of Kennedy’s support of Israel.
Bugliosi, Vincent. Reclaiming History: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy. New York: W. W. Norton, 2007. A major supporter of the Warren Commission’s conclusion that Oswald was the lone assassin offers an exhaustive reexamination of the evidence from his point of view.
James, Stuart H., and Jon J. Nordby, eds. Forensic Science: An Introduction to Scientific and Forensic Techniques. 2d ed. Boca Raton, Fla.: CRC Press, 2005. Provides an excellent overview of forensic science for the general reader.
Kurtz, Michael L. The JFK Assassination Debates: Lone Gunman Versus Conspiracy. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2006. Weighs the forensic evidence supporting the views of both sides of the main debate concerning the Kennedy assassination. One of the best sources available on the topic.
Lifton, David S. Best Evidence: Disguise and Deception in the Assassination of John F. Kennedy. New York: Signet, 1992. Argues that much of the forensic evidence used to prove Oswald was the lone assassin is faulty because Kennedy’s body was altered before...
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Assassination (West's Encyclopedia of American Law)
Murder committed by a perpetrator without the personal provocation of the victim, who is usually a government official.
First used in medieval times to describe the murders of prominent Christians by the Hashshashin, a secret Islamic sect, the word assassination is used in the twenty-first century to describe murders committed for political reasons, especially against government officials. Assassination may be used as a political weapon by a state as well as by an individual; it may be directed at the establishment or used by it.
The term assassination is generally applied only to political murdersn the United States, most commonly to attempts on the life of the president. However, the classification of any one incident as an assassination may be in part a matter of perception. The "assassination" of the outlaw Jesse James, in 1882, provides an example of the difficulties. Thomas T. Crittenden, governor of Missouri, assumed that being seen as responsible for the death of the notorious outlaw would be good for his political career. For this reason, Crittenden granted each of the killers a pardon in addition to a $10,000 reward. But the American public spoke vehemently against James's killers, dubbing them assassins and his death an assassination. Crittenden was vilified by the American people, and his political career was destroyed.
It is not...
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Assassination (Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity)
Assassination is commonly defined as "political murder." While it is not necessary that the victim of an assassination be a political leader, assassinations are generally killings that target specific individuals for a political purpose, and are often accomplished by means of surprise or treachery. When ordered by a state against leaders of a foreign state, assassinations generally violate international law.
The word assassination first appeared in English in the play Macbeth by William Shakespeare. However, the root of the word, assassin, is much older. It originally comes from the Arabic word hashshashin, which means "eaters of hashish." This Arabic meaning derives from a certain Islamic sect whose members were known for murdering their political opponents after ingesting the drug hashish.
International law distinguishes between state-sponsored assassination and assassination that is not state-sponsored. When an assassination is committed by a group that is not affiliated with a government or by an individual acting alone, it is not state-sponsored. There have been many well-known assassinations of this type throughout history. For example, the Roman general and statesman Julius Caesar was assassinated by a group of conspirators in the Roman Senate in 44 BCE. The American Presidents Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy were also assassinated by individuals who were not acting on behalf of any state, as was the civil rights leader Martin Luther King, whose killer was an escaped convict. Another example of this type of assassination is the murder of Egyptian president Anwar al-Sadat, who was assassinated by Islamic extremists in his own army, while he was reviewing a military parade in 1981.
Assassinations that are not sponsored by states are usually treated as murders in the countries where they occur. Because no state is responsible, they usually do not violate international law. Except in the case of international criminal law, only states can be held responsible for violating international law.
Under most circumstances, international law prohibits state-sponsored assassination. The United Nations Charter prohibits the aggressive use of force by one state against another. The Charter also prohibits interfering in the territory or affairs of another state. Chapter I of the Charter requires that all states must "settle their international disputes by peaceful means" and must "refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force". When a state sponsors the assassination of the leader of another state, it violates this basic rule of international law.
However, there are two important exceptions to this rule. First, state-sponsored "targeted killings" may sometimes be legal during times of war. Under the law of war, two states that are at war with each other may kill soldiers in the opposing army. The killing of enemy soldiers is not considered illegal assassination because during a war soldiers are said to have a legal "privilege" to kill their enemies. This privilege extends to military leaders, who are often considered fair game as "command-and-control" targets. In some cases, government officials may be fair targets if they are part of the military chain of command.
However, even during times of war a "targeted killing" can only be legal if it does not violate the law of war. A state that uses "treachery" to kill an enemy may be guilty of war crimes. Article 23 of the Hague Convention IV of 1907 provides that "it is especially forbidden . . . to kill or wound treacherously, individuals belonging to the hostile nation or army." Treachery is usually defined as a breach of confidence, such as an attack on an individual who believes that there is no need to fear the attacker. Examples of treachery include attacking while pretending to seek a truce or surrender, attacking while pretending to be injured or sick, or attacking while pretending to be a non-combatant civilian. However, the mere act of surprising an enemy or failing to meet the enemy face-to-face is not enough to constitute treachery. Treacherous assassinations are illegal under the law of war.
The second exception to the general prohibition against state-sponsored assassination is the exception for self-defense. Article 51 of the United Nations Charter grants states an "inherent right" to self-defense if an armed attack against them occurs. If assassination is used as self-defense it may be legal under international law. The self-defense exception does not require that the state be at war, but the assassination must meet the definition of a legitimate act of self-defense.
There are three main requirements for a legitimate act of self-defense. First, self-defense may only be used when the threat of aggression is imminent. This means that defensive force may only be used to defend against an act of aggression that is occurring or is about to occur. Second, force must be necessary in order to defend against the aggression. If there is any other way to defend against the threat, such as a diplomatic solution, it must be used first. Third, the defensive response must be proportionate to the threatened aggression. A state may not use more force than necessary to defend against the threat. Any extra force would be considered an illegal reprisal, and not a legal act of self-defense. Under these criteria, an assassination must be designed to defend against an immediate threat of aggression to be considered a legitimate form of self-defense. The assassination must be the only way to defend against the aggression. Furthermore, the assassination may not be used for reprisals against an attack that has already occurred.
Scholars have debated whether the right to self-defense permits the use of assassination to prevent or deter future attacks. This is generally called "anticipatory self-defense." The more restrictive view is that assassination can only be legal when used to defend against a specific attack that is occurring or is about to occur. Others argue that terrorism and weapons of mass destruction have created a new environment, in which states must be allowed to defend themselves by any means necessary, even before an attack has begun. Israel has frequently used assassination as a kind of anticipatory self-defense. In 1988 its agents killed Abu Jihad, the head of military strategy for the Palestinian Liberation Organization. In 1992 an Israeli helicopter gunship killed Sheik Abbas Musawi, the leader of the Islamic Resistance Movement. In 2004 an Israeli missile killed the spiritual leader of Hamas, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin. Israel has argued that these killings are necessary to prevent future terrorist attacks, but many international observers view them as reprisals for past acts and, therefore, as illegitimate forms of self-defense.
U.S. Law on State-Sponsored Assassination
The U.S. position on assassination has changed over time. As of the early twenty-first century, U.S. law prohibited the use of assassination. However, although assassination has been prohibited by the U.S. army as a technique of warfare since the Civil War, there have been periods where assassination has been used as an instrument of foreign policy. For example, during the cold war the CIA attempted to assassinate a number of foreign leaders who were thought to be sympathetic to communism. These assassination plots were made public in 1975. A congressional committee lead by Senator Frank Church found that successive U.S. presidents had authorized plans to assassinate five foreign leaders during the 1960s and early 1970s. The targeted leaders included Chilean President Salvador Allende and Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, against whom eight unsuccessful assassination plots were authorized.
The Church Committee made clear its disapproval of these tactics and concluded that: "short of war, assassination is incompatible with American principles, international order, and morality. It should be rejected as a tool of foreign policy." The Committee recommended that Congress pass a law to make assassination illegal. Congress, however, has never passed such a law. Instead, U.S. policy on assassination has been governed by a series of Executive Orders, beginning in 1976. These orders have prohibited employees of the United States from engaging in assassination during peacetime, but have not defined the exact meaning of assassination. The absence of a precise definition has given U.S. Presidents leeway to order missions that some observers have viewed as assassination attempts.
For example, in the 1980s and 1990s, the U.S. launched several military attacks that were most likely designed to kill specific individuals. In 1986, the Reagan administration launched air strikes against Libya and targeted the army barracks where Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi was known to be sleeping. In 1998, in retaliation for the al-Qaeda attacks on U.S. embassies in East Africa, the Clinton administration launched cruise missiles against a training camp in Afghanistan with the hope of killing Osama bin Laden.
International Criminal Responsibility
Assassination is generally considered a violation of the international law against treachery in war or aggression in times of peace. In addition, it is possible, although less likely, that individuals or groups of individuals accused of assassination could be held accountable for committing genocide or crimes against humanity.
An assassination could rise to the level of a crime against humanity only if it was part of a systematic or widespread pattern of attacks against a civilian population. There would have to be a pattern of "extra-judicial killing" of civilians, of which the assassination formed one part. In general, assassinations do not fit this definition because they often occur as single isolated events and involve treachery, often against quasi-military targets, rather than systematic or widespread attacks against civilians.
An assassination could constitute genocide only if the killing was committed with the intention of destroying a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group in part or as a whole. Because assassinations generally target specific individuals for political purposes, they would not often meet this requirement. However, if an assassination that targeted a particular individual was a part of a broader plan to destroy the individual's entire group, it could be viewed as part of a genocide. This might have been the case during the early stages of the Rwandan genocide, when groups of Hutu used written lists to search out and murder specific Tutsi political leaders.
SEE ALSO Crimes Against Humanity; War Crimes
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Ford, Franklin, L. (1985). Political Murder: From Tyrannicide to Terrorism. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
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Brian K. Morgan
Assassination (World of Forensic Science)
Assassination is a sudden, usually unexpected, act of murder, typically with a political or military leader as its target. The practice of assassination goes back to ancient times, and extends into the present day. Assassinations have occurred throughout history, in places all over the globe. At one time, the most widely used tool for assassination was a knife or dagger. Modern day assassinations more often use guns, bombs, poisons, and biological agents such as toxins.
In the United States, the President has been a frequent target. In 1865 Abraham Lincoln became the first American president killed by an assassin's bullet, followed by James A. Garfield in 1881, William McKinley in 1901, and John F. Kennedy in 1963. Unsuccessful attempts were made on Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S Truman, Gerald Ford, and Ronald Reagan.
The assassination of Austrian Archduke Francis Ferdinand in 1914 precipitated World War I, and, 30 years later, the attempted assassination of Adolf Hitler by his generals very nearly ended World War II. In India, not only Mohandas K. Gandhi in 1948, but Prime Minister Indira Gandhi (no relation) in 1984, and her son and successor, Rajiv Gandhi in 1991, fell victim to assassin's bullets. Leaders in various countries throughout the Middle East have been killed by assassins: King Abdullah of Jordan in 1951, President Anwar Sadat of Eygpt in 1981, and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 were all victims of assassination. Interestingly, all of these leaders were killed by extremists on their own political side. On the other hand, extremist leaders are as likely as any to become targets of assassins. Senator Huey Long of Louisiana was assassinated in the 1930s and Nation of Islam leader Malcolm X was killed 30 years later. George Lincoln Rockwell, leader of the American Nazi Party, and Pim Fortuyn, founder of a Dutch radical anti-immigrant party, were also slain by assassins.
Targets of assassination are not necessarily national leaders, formal office-holders, or even political leaders. When a Turkish assassin attempted to shoot Pope John Paul II in 1981, it was clearly a political act even though the pope was not a political leader per se. Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, both assassinated in 1968, were political leaders, but King held no formal office and Kennedy, although he was a senator and presidential candidate, symbolized a larger cultural atmosphere of optimism and activism. Furthermore, his status as John F. Kennedy's brother added greatly to the symbolic impact of the event.
In the aftermath of any assassination, forensic science may be used to try to determine the method of death and to identify those responsible. Forensic science is not concerned with the aims or the political implications of assassinations. Rather, the battery of tests and skills of the forensic investigators are geared toward deducing how the murder was carried out.
Even in an obvious case of an assassination by means of gunshot, a forensic investigation can possibly identify the firearm that was used. Furthermore, ballistics and gunshot residue studies can be used to implicate a suspect.
Forensic identification techniques for poisonous inorganic compounds and biological agents such as bacterial toxins can be valuable in unraveling the nature of assassinations that involve these harder to detect weapons.
SEE ALSO Assassination weapons, biochemical; Assassination weapons, mechanical; Kennedy assassination; Lincoln exhumation; Ricin; Sarin gas.