Case Summary: Treason case | Cramer v. United States, 325 US 1

By | May 20, 2021
Case Summary: Treason Case

The present case is of Cramer v. United States[1] popularly known as the ‘Treason case’ in which the Supreme Court of the United States reviewed the conviction of the Petitioner, Anthony Cramer, a German-born naturalized citizen, for treason. The case marked the first time that the U.S Supreme Court passed on the meaning of the treason clause of Article III, section 2, of the Constitution.

A landmark judgment was given stating that the overt acts testified to by two witnesses must be sufficient to be called treasonable, in their setting, to sustain a finding that actual aid and comfort was given to an enemy of the United States.

I. Background of the Case

In the present case, the Petitioner is Anthony Cramer, a German-born mechanic who had an association with two Germans, namely, Werner Thiel and Edward Kerling, one of whom he had prior business dealings with. The two of his associates were later found to be indulged in Operation Pastorius and were present in the United States for the sole purpose of sabotage against the Government.

On the basis of this association of the Petitioner with the named Germans, Cramer was also arrested aftermath the failure of the operation Pastorius to which in 1942, the High Court of the United States convicted him for the case of treason against the Government on the grounds that he adhered to enemies of the United States by giving them aid and comfort. He was awarded the imprisonment of 45 years in prison along with a fine of $10,000.

Later, the Petitioner appealed against his conviction before the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, where the court upheld his conviction. Consequent to this, the Petitioner filed an appeal before the Supreme Court, as his last resort and the Apex Court granted him Certiorari on November 8, 1943.

The case was originally argued before the Supreme Court on March 9, 1944; reargued on November 6, 1944; and the final judgment was decided on April 23, 1945. On behalf of the Petitioner, Harold Medina, a future Federal judge, appeared before the Supreme Court while Solicitor General Charles Fahy was acting on behalf of the U.S government, defending their action against the Petitioner.

II. Issue Involved

The issue on appeal before the Supreme Court was not whether the Petitioner had a treasonous intent, but whether his overt act of meeting twice with the two saboteurs rose to the level of providing them with aid and comfort, so as to satisfy the constitutional definition of treason?

III. Contention of the Parties

In the present case, the only issue involved concerned the function of the overt acts of the Petitioner which was the sole ground to charge him of conviction. The Petitioner contended that the overt act “alone and on its face must manifest a traitorous intention”.

On the other hand, the Respondent, U.S Government contended that “an apparently commonplace and insignificant act and . . . other circumstances [may] create an inference that the act was a step in treason and was done with treasonable intent.”

IV. Decision Held

The Supreme Court upon review of the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed Cramer’s conviction upon review, the Supreme Court reversed the decision of the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, affirming Cramer’s conviction by giving a 5–4 decision written by Justice Robert Jackson, which is briefly reproduced as under:

  1. In a prosecution upon an indictment charging treason by adhering to enemies of the United States, giving them aid and comfort, in violation of § 1 of the Criminal Code, the overt act relied on, of which the Constitution requires proof by two witnesses, must be at least an act of the accused sufficient, in its setting, to sustain a finding that the accused actually gave aid and comfort to the enemy.[2]
  2. The protection of the two-witness rule of the Constitution in such case extends at least to all acts of the defendant which are used to draw incriminating inferences that aid and comfort have been given.[3]
  3. In a prosecution upon an indictment charging Cramer with the case of treason for adhering to enemies of the United States, giving them aid and comfort, which stands in violation of § 1 of the Criminal Code, the two of the Petitioner’s overt acts which were alleged and relied on are:

“1. Anthony Cramer, the defendant herein, on or about June 23, 1942, at the Southern District of New York and within the jurisdiction of this Court, did meet with Werner Thiel and Edward John Kerling, enemies of the United States, at the Twin Oaks Inn at Lexington Avenue and 44th Street, in the City and New York, and did confer, treat, and counsel with said Werner Thiel and Edward John Kerling for a period of time for the purpose of giving and with intent to give aid and comfort to said enemies, Werner Thiel and Edward John Kerling.”

“2. Anthony Cramer, the defendant herein, on or about June 23, 1942, at the Southern District of New York and within the jurisdiction of this Court, did accompany, confer, treat, and counsel with Werner Thiel, an enemy of the United States, for a period of time at the Twin Oaks Inn at Lexington Avenue and 44th Street, and at Thompson’s Cafeteria on 42nd Street between Lexington and Vanderbilt Avenues, both in the City and New York, for the purpose of giving and with intent to give aid and comfort to said enemy, Werner Thiel.”

  1. By direct testimony of the two or more witnesses who were FBI agents, it was established that the Petitioner met the saboteurs; Thiel and Kerling on the occasions and at the places charged; that they drank together, and that they engaged long and earnestly in conversation. However, there was no concrete proof found by the two witnesses of what they said, or in what language they conversed. This means there was no showing that Petitioner was involved in giving the saboteurs any material information whatever of value to their mission, or that he had any to give; no showing of any effort at secrecy, they having met in public places, and no evidence that Petitioner furnished them shelter, sustenance, or supplies, or that he gave them encouragement or counsel, or even paid for their drinks.
  2. The Supreme Court finally held that overt acts as shown in the 1 and 2 as proved were insufficient to support a finding that the Petitioner had actually given aid and comfort to the enemy, and therefore insufficient to support a judgment of conviction of the Petitioner.[4]

V. Conclusion

Noting the considerations and contentions of the Parties, in this case, the U.S Supreme Court took the middle road and held that in order to classify for the constitutional definition of treason, the minimum function of the overt act was to show sufficient action by the accused that the Petitioner Cramer actually gave aid and comfort to the enemies of the U.S government. Since there was no sufficient proof and evidence that the meetings between the accused and the two conferred any benefit upon the two saboteurs, it should be decided that the Petitioner clearly did not provide aid and comfort to them.

It is noteworthy in the present case that the Supreme Court did not hold that the overt act must manifest a treasonous intent (although it could have), only that the overt act of the accused must in fact have given actual aid and comfort to the enemy.[5]


[1] 325 U.S. 1 (1945).

[2] 325 U. S. 34.

[3] 325 U. S. 33.

[4]325 U. S. 36-37, 48.

[5] Paul T. Crane, Did the Court Kill the Treason Charge?: Reassessing Cramer. v. United States and its Significance, 36 FLA. ST. U. L. REV. 635, 651–52 (2009).


  1. Law Library: Notes and Study Material for LLB, LLM, Judiciary and Entrance Exams
  2. Legal Bites Academy – Ultimate Test Prep Destination
Author: Deepshikha

Deepshikha is a law student from National Law University, Odisha.

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