What is being an Accessory to Murder

Like the many defendants, you may wonder what it means to be accused of being an accessory to murder. You may be under the impression that this is a minor charge or that you can easily clear your name if accused. However, this is not always the case. Depending on your case's facts, being convicted of being an accessory to murder can result in a lengthy jail sentence. If you are currently facing such charges, it is essential to understand the implications and potential consequences. This article will provide an overview of what it means to be an accessory to murder and tips on building a robust legal defense if charged with this crime.

Definition of Murder Per California Law

Many states in the United States have adopted the Uniform Crime Reporting definition of murder. In the US, murder is the willful and unlawful killing of one human being by another with malice aforethought. To be charged with murder, the prosecution must prove that you had the intent to kill another person. If you did not have this intent but assisted in some way with the planning or commission of a murder, you may be charged as an accessory.

Meaning of an Accessory to Murder in California

An accessory to murder is someone who aids or abets in committing a murder. In California, it is a criminal offense to assist or participate in the planning or commission of a murder. To face charges and conviction for being an accessory to murder, the prosecution must prove that you knew that a murder would be committed and that you assisted somehow. This can include providing the weapon used, helping to plan the crime, or being present at the crime scene. For example, you could be charged as an accessory if you helped the killer plan the murder or provided them with the weapon used to commit the murder. The state usually charges accessory before the fact as “aiding and abetting” under California Penal Code 31 PC.

Possible Penalties to Being an Accessory to Murder

The penalties for being an accessory to murder vary depending on the facts of the case and the jurisdiction in which the crime was committed. In California, an accessory can be charged with the same crime as the principal, which means they could face the same penalties, including a life sentence or the death penalty, depending on your case’s facts. The penalties for being an accessory to murder could be less severe. For example, you may be charged with a felony and face up to 5 years in prison.

If found guilty of being an accessory to murder, possible punishment include:

  • Serving time in the state prison for 3, 5, or 7 years.
  • Paying a fine not exceeding $10,000.
  • Facing both penalties: Paying the fine and serving time in prison.

Example: Kelvin is in his home at night eating dinner when his work colleague, Keith, unexpectedly knocks at his door. Keith asks Kelvin if he could hold on to a dirty, red-tinged ax. Kelvin finds the request suspicious, but he accepts the ax and places it in his garage. The following morning, the police appear at Kelvin’s door armed with a search warrant. Upon searching Kelvin’s property, the police find the ax and determine it was used to murder someone. The red tinge was dried blood.

In the example above, it would be reasonable if Kelvin refused to store the ax because he does not have a close relationship with Keith. The court could prefer felony charges. However, Kelvin's case could be a wobbler because the abetting factor happened after the murder. The judge has the jurisdiction to review the case events and decide if to charge Kelvin with a misdemeanor or felony charge.

Another example: Tabitha decides to go home and rest after working late. Her car is parked in the parking area where no other car but hers is parked. Someone jumps from behind the wall holding a shotgun. The person commands Tabitha to enter her car and drive to an undisclosed location. The culprit is covered in a sticky substance and points the shotgun at Tabitha’s head as she drives. After driving a few miles, the culprit asks Tabitha to stop and leaves the car. Upon investigation, with the help of camera footage, the police found out that the victim’s blood and the murderer’s DNA were at the back of Tabitha’s vehicle. The court then decides to change Tabitha to being an accessory after the fact.

In Tabitha’s case above, she could argue that she acted under duress even though she was charged with a misdemeanor crime. The facts surrounding her case prove that she did not willingly or knowingly aid in the crime.

Third example: Phil and Paul are close friends who often go fishing. Phil is a law enforcement officer. Paul is going through an energy-draining divorce after his wife cheats on him. Paul asks Phil about murder cases he has helped solve in the past, what weapons are ideal, how to hide DNA, and how one could hide a murder case without being caught. The law prohibits the police from sharing information on murder cases, but Phil contravenes the rule and shares the information with Paul.

In the above case, Phil helped Paul before the murder occurred. If Paul decides to murder his cheating wife, the court could charge Phil as an accessory.

Defenses to Being an Accessory to Murder in California

If you have been charged with being an accessory to murder, there are a few defenses that your attorney may use to have the charges against you reduced or dismissed. These include:

  • You Did Not Have The Required Intent

For you to be convicted of being an accessory to murder, the prosecution must prove that you had the intent to aid in the killing of another person. If you did not have this intent but merely assisted in some way with the planning or commission of a murder, you cannot be convicted of being an accessory. The court could choose to reduce your charges to a lesser charge.

  • You Were Coerced

If you only assisted in the commission of murder because you were threatened or forced to do so, you may be able to use this as a defense. However, you bear the burden to prove that you acted upon coercion.

  • You Withdrew From The Crime

If you changed your mind and decided not to go through with abetting to commit murder, but the crime was still carried out, you may be able to use this as a defense. To use this defense successfully, you must prove that you made an unequivocal statement that you no longer wanted to be involved in the crime and that you took reasonable steps to prevent the crime from happening.

  • You Were Misidentified

If you have been wrongly accused of being an accessory to murder, you must provide evidence to support your innocence. This could include an alibi or eyewitness testimony. If you have been charged with being an accessory to murder, it is important to seek legal assistance as soon as possible. An experienced criminal defense attorney will be able to review the details of your case and help you determine the best course of action.

  • You Had No Duty to Act

If you are aware of a plot to commit murder but did not act to avert the crime from occurring, the court cannot convict you of being an accessory to murder. Penal Code 31 PC provides that you are guilty of the charges if you had a legal duty to act.

Per the law, legal duties are few because the law confers these depending on case by case basis. Therefore, knowing that someone is about to commit murder and you do nothing about it, the court cannot convict you.

Other solid defenses for accessories before and after the fact are:

  1. Defenses to the Accessory Before the Fact

Your criminal defense attorney could use the following defenses if the court charges you as an accessory before the fact:

  • No criminal offense happened. So the court cannot charge you as an accessory before the fact.
  • Before the murder happened, you did not know about the principal's intention to commit the offense.
  • You did not intend to help in the commission of murder. The lack of intent could be a solid defense to the charges.
  • If the principal threatened you, that could be a solid defense. Your attorney could argue in court that the principal threatened you or another person with immediate physical injury.
  1. Defenses to the Accessory After the Fact

With the help of your defense lawyer, you could use the defenses that follow to build a strong defense strategy:

  • The crime did not occur, so you could not have been an accessory.
  • You were not aware of the crime. Although you did the acts the prosecution accuses you of, you cannot be found guilty as an accessory. If you have zero knowledge of the principal’s offense, the court cannot convict you for being an accessory.
  • You had no intention to help the princip[al] escape punishment or conviction. You could have helped the principal without the knowledge of their crime commission.
  • If you or your loved ones received threats of bodily harm from the principal, the law says that you lack the mental capacity needed to be an accessory. Since the principal threatened you with immediate harm, you performed actions that you would not have performed otherwise.

The Difference Between an Accessory Before the Fact and an Accessory After the Fact

An accessory before the fact is someone who assists in planning a crime but is not present when the crime is committed. An accessory after the fact is someone who helps a criminal avoid arrest or covers up a crime that has been committed. In California, possible penalties for being an accessory before the fact are similar to those for being an accessory after the fact.

Can I Be Charged With Being An Accessory To A Crime That Was Never Committed?

Yes. In California, you can be charged with being an accessory to a crime never actually committed. For you to be convicted of being an accessory to a crime that was never committed, the prosecution must prove that:

  • You assisted another person in the planning of a crime.
  • You knew that the other person was going to commit a crime.
  • You intended to assist in the commission of the crime.

If the prosecution cannot prove all of these elements, you cannot be convicted of being an accessory to a crime that was never actually committed.

For example, if you help someone plan a murder, but the murder is never carried out, you can still be charged with being an accessory to murder.

The penalties for being an accessory to murder in California depend on whether the underlying crime was a first or second-degree murder. If the underlying crime was first-degree murder, the penalties for being an accessory are:

  • Imprisonment in the state prison for 5, 8, or 11 years.
  • A fine of up to $10,000.

If the underlying crime was second-degree murder, the penalties for being an accessory are:

  • Imprisonment in the state prison for 3, 5, or 7 years.
  • A fine of up to $10,000.

In addition to these penalties, if you are convicted of being an accessory to murder, you will also have a felony on your criminal record. A felony is a serious crime that can have many negative consequences, including losing your right to vote, losing your right to own a firearm, and difficulty finding employment.

If you have been charged with being an accessory to murder, it is important to seek legal assistance as soon as possible. An experienced criminal defense attorney will be able to review the details of your case and help you develop the best defense. An accessory before the fact is someone who assists in the planning or committing of a crime but is not present when the crime is committed.

Can An Accomplice Be Charged With A Separate Crime?

Yes, an accomplice can be charged with a separate crime. For example, if you help someone plan a murder, you can be charged with being an accessory to murder. If the person you helped commit the murder is also charged with first-degree murder, you could also be charged with first-degree murder.

What Should I Do If I Have Been Charged With Being An Accessory To A Crime?

If you have been charged with being an accessory to a crime, it is important to seek legal assistance as soon as possible. An experienced criminal defense attorney will be able to review the details of your case and help you develop the best defense.

An accessory before the fact is someone who assists in the planning or commission of a crime but is not present when the crime is committed. An accessory after the fact is someone who helps a criminal avoid arrest or covers up a crime that has been committed.

In California, the penalties for being an accessory before the fact are the same as those for being an accessory after the fact.

How Does The Law Treat Co-Conspirators?

The law treats co-conspirators differently than it does accessories. A conspirator is someone who agrees with one or more other people to commit a crime. For a conspirator to be liable for the crime, the crime must be committed by at least one of the conspirators.

A conspirator can be charged with the underlying crime, even if they did not commit the crime. For example, if you agree with someone to commit murder, you can be charged with first-degree murder even if the other person is the one who kills the victim.

Can I Hire a Criminal Defense Lawyer If You're Accused Of Being An Accessory To Murder?

You can get a criminal defense lawyer if you are accused of being an accessory to murder. An experienced criminal defense attorney will be able to review the details of your case and help you develop the best defense.

Find a Criminal Defense Lawyer Near Me

If you are being investigated for or have been charged with being an accessory to murder, it is crucial to contact an experienced criminal defense attorney as soon as possible. The penalties for this crime can be severe, California law can be complicated, and the law treats accomplices and co-conspirators very harshly. An attorney can help you understand your rights, help build strong defenses and guide you through the California criminal justice system. At The Los Angeles Criminal Defense Attorney, we build a solid defense for suspects facing charges of being an accessory to murder. We could help to have your charges lowered or dismissed in court. Contact us today at 310-564-2605 to schedule a cost-free and no-obligation consultation with one of our experienced attorneys.

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