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Accessory To Murder Charges
(Definition, Punishment & Defenses)

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C.L. Mike Schmidt Published by C.L. Mike Schmidt

Schmidt & Clark, LLP is not currently accepting these types of cases and has posted this content for information purposes only. We encourage you to seek a qualified attorney, if you feel you might have a case.

Being charged with accessory to murder can be tricky to comprehend. Understanding what the term means and why you may be charged with this crime is important.

As a criminal defense attorney, I have worked with many cases of accessory to murder. It is important to note that an accessory differs from an accomplice or conspirator.

To help you better understand this concept, here's what you need to know about accessory to murder charges.

Quick Summary

  • If found guilty of this criminal act, you might be incarcerated in either jail or state prison for up to three years and have to pay a maximum fine amounting up to $5,000.
  • Assisting the person who did commit murder is classified as an accessory after the fact.
  • According to California Penal Code 31PC, helping a criminal before their offense is commonly referred to as "aiding and abetting."

What is an Accessory to Murder?

A lawyer explaining to a client what an accessory to murder is

An accessory to murder is aiding to murder another person, even if one did not commit murder.

According to the law, an "accessory" actively supports or assists in committing a crime [1].

This distinct legal notion separates between:

Aiding someone after they commit murder or a felony is classified as an accessory after the fact. Before a crime is even executed, an accessory can be held responsible for aiding and abetting in criminal activity.  For example, suppose someone assists another individual in selecting a deadly murder weapon against their partner or family member. In that case, they are complicit in any resulting domestic violence offense.

Related Article: Domestic Violence Offense Classes

Under the California Penal Code 31PC, the accessory before the act of the crime is commonly referred to as "aiding and abetting." For a person to be held liable in such cases, they must know what was happening.

That is, those who are accused must have been aware that those whom they were assisting either:

  • Had the intention to commit a crime
  • Actually did commit a crime

When someone abets in a crime, they are known as the abettor, while the individual to whom they assist is identified as the principal offender. When it comes to criminal law, an accessory faces the same criminal charges as the main offender and is sentenced to up to fifteen years in state prison.

Related Article: Self-Defense Murder Explained

What Is The Punishment For Accessory To Murder?

A lawyer holding a gavel in an officeThe punishment for accessory to murder can vary depending on how extreme the crime is and how it was charged. For example, if an individual is found guilty of aiding and abetting a crime, they may be subject to the same charges and penalties as the principal offender.  This means that in cases such as murder, potential punishments could include life imprisonment in the state prison without parole.

Accessory after the fact is a "wobbler," meaning that depending on the defendant's criminal records and details of the case, it can be classified as either a misdemeanor or felony. Accessory after the fact can result in severe consequences, ranging from county jail time of up to one year and fines of $5,000 for misdemeanor convictions.

Related Article: How Long Does a Felony Stay On Your Record?

If charged with an accessory after the fact, this offense carries a punishment of up to three years in state prison and hefty penalties reaching up to $5,000.

Accessory to murder before the murder is known as "aiding and abetting." It is practically the same as being an accomplice. If you are convicted of this crime, you could face the same penalties as the person who did the act
- Michael Simmrin, Trial Lawyer

Also Read: Examples of Second Degree Murder in California

Common Defenses To Accessory To Murder 

An attorney reading a law book on defensesAn individual accused of accessory to murder holds the right to mount a legal defense that effectively raises doubts regarding any claims against them.  The prosecutor will usually try to prove that the defendant intentionally acted to help the principal offender.  A successful argument creates reasonable uncertainty regarding the accusations.

When charged with accessory to murder, three potential defenses for a defendant include proof that:

  • Ignorant of the principal's criminal activities or planned misdeeds, they remained unaware
  • The principal was not guilty of committing the actual murder
  • The accused acted under extreme pressure

The legal defense of "Duress" allows an accused to argue that they were merely committing a crime because someone else threatened them with death if it was not done.  This only applies in certain severe and limited situations where the safety of the individual is at risk [2].

For individuals dealing with an accessory charge, it is essential to seek the counsel of a qualified attorney. Various legal defenses are available in these cases, but only a professional attorney will understand which is most suitable for you. Understanding that the attorney-client relationship safeguards lawyers' and clients' conversations are essential.

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How Do States Define Murder?

States define murder as the malicious taking of human life, which can be categorized into two degrees. These are first-degree murder and second-degree murder, which carry severe penalties in most jurisdictions.

Is Accessory Same As Conspiracy?

No, accessory and conspiracy are two distinct offenses in criminal law. A conspiracy is an agreement between two or more people to commit a crime. On the other hand, accessory involves assisting a perpetrator before, during, or after committing the crime.

What Is Considered An Accessory?

An accessory is considered when someone assists a perpetrator before, during, or after the commission of a crime. This can include helping plan the crime and providing moral support by not intervening in unlawful acts. 

Is Accessory Same As Accomplice?

No, an accessory is not the same as an accomplice. Contrary to an accessory, which is rarely present at the scene of a crime, an accomplice often participates in its execution. This is one of the most fundamental differences between these two terms.

What are the charges for being an accessory to murder? 

The charges for being an accessory to murder can vary but typically include severe penalties such as long-term imprisonment, especially if the person is deemed an accessory before or after the fact.

Need To Speak To A Criminal Defense Lawyer?

There are several ways to defend yourself against accessory to murder allegations. These include claims such as lack of intent, duress, and the simple fact that the principal offender did not kill anyone.

That is why talking to an experienced criminal defense lawyer at Schmidt & Clark, LLP can help you develop a defense strategy to increase your chances of obtaining a favorable outcome. Contact our criminal defense lawyers today for a free consultation session.