Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) yesterday said he intends to introduce legislation to provide the death penalty for anyone who tries to assassinate a president.
The idea, offered at a Senate Judiciary hearing 11 days after a gunman wounded President Reagan, and three others, as he was leaving a routine speaking engagement, was promptly endorsed by two witnesses, David Robinson, a George Washington University law professor, and Feris Lucas, executive director of the National Sheriff's Association.
"The federal responsibility for preservation of the national government makes it important that our highest officials receive the protection of the capital punishment threat," said Robinson.
But Assistant Attorney General D. Lowell Jensen, who heads the Criminal Division of the Justice Department, said he would have to study the matter before the Reagan administration could take a position on it.
Jensen, however, endorsed on behalf of the administration another Thurmond proposal calling for the death penalty in cases of espionage, treason, kidnapping or assassination of a president, vice president, foreign head of state or federal judge. Reagan and Attorney General William French Smith, he noted, have publicly supported the death penalty "in carefully circumscribed conditions for the most serious crimes."
Jensen's testimony also hinted that the administration might support the death penalty in murder cases in the District of Columbia, a move endorsed by Thurmond but long opposed by the D.C. City Council.
"White sociological studies have reached differing conclusions, common sense tells us that the death penalty does operate as an effective deterrent for some crimes involving premeditation and caluclaton," Jensen said.
"Society does have a right -- and the Supreme Court has confirmed that right -- to exact a just and proportionate punishment on those individuals who deliverately flout its laws."
Jensen was not questioned about Thurmond's bill, introduced Wednesday, to make murder in the District punishable by death, but the bill was modeled after the legislation Jensen endorsed yesterday.
Roger A. Pauley, legislative director for the Criminal Division, said he didn't see "any substantial policy differences" between the two pieces of legislation, but the administration may decide the District bill involves homerule questions that would be better addressed by the City Council.
"I really don't know what position we'd take on that," Pauley added.
Jensen, in his testimony, said the Justice Department believes Thurmond's bill imposing the death penalty for treason, espionage, assassinations and kidnapping "would likely pass constitutional muster and is of such a scope and nature as to constitute an appropriate framework for the restoration of the death penalty into the federal criminal system."
An analysis of the bill by the American Civil Liberties Union, however, argues it is unconstitutional because it would not require a majority vote of a jury to impose the death penalty, and would allow it in cases that do not involve homicide.
Congress has repeatedly attempted to reinstate the death penalty for conviction of some federal crimes since 1972, when the Supreme Court overturned every death penalty statute in the country.