Accessory to Murder: What Does it Mean

Murder charges are very serious. Equally serious are accessory to murder charges. An accessory to murder is anyone who helps someone commit a murder or helps that person after the party commits a murder. This can include giving someone a boat or vehicle in which to escape, giving them money to help them get away, hiding the murder weapon, and much more.

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What Is Accessory to Murder?

Accessory to murder is a criminal act that has to do with murder charges. In this situation, a person may be found guilty of helping or assisting a murderer either before or after the murder takes place.

It is illegal to encourage someone to commit a criminal act, to facilitate that person in committing a criminal act, or to help them commit a criminal act. In every state, the penal code will charge you as an accessory to manslaughter either after the fact or before the fact.

1. Accessory to murder after the fact

An accessory to murder after the fact is a person who helps a murderer after they have committed the murder.

2. Accessory to murder before the fact

Similarly, an accessory to murder before the fact is someone who helps a murderer before the party commits the murder.

Accessory to Murder Charges

Whether you are charged as an accessory to murder before the fact or after the fact, the prosecution has to prove that you were aware of the crime and that you intentionally acted in a way that helped the murderer, who is referred to as the principal offender. This intent, the fact that you must have knowingly helped, means that if you acted under duress, which means that you helped a principal offender because you feared for your safety or were forced to with a deadly weapon, you have a suitable legal defense to the criminal charges. 

Penalties for Accessory to Murder

The penalties for accessory to murder charges are really based on the severity of the crime and the type of case. 

If you are charged with aiding and abetting, then it is very likely you will face the same penalties if convicted as the person who has commit murder. This means that you could face a felony charge with the most serious cases resulting in life in prison without parole. 

In other cases, if you are charged as an accessory after the fact, you could be legally referred to as a wobbler. A wobbler is one who could face a felony or a misdemeanor accessory charge. This is really based on the criminal history of the defendant as well as the facts involved in the case. 

  • If convicted of a misdemeanor accessory charge, the punishment could include time in a county jail for up to one year and fines up to $5,000. 
  • If convicted of a felony charge, the punishment can include up to three years in a state prison and the same $5,000 fine. 

Let’s look at an example:

Mark is at home one evening finishing dinner when a colleague from work randomly knocks on his door. The colleague asks him if he can hang on to what looks like a very dirty, red-tinged axe. Mark thinks the request is odd, but he accepts the tool and places it in his shed. A few days later, police show up on his property with a warrant to search the shed. They find the tool and test it, confirming that it was the murder weapon and that the red tinge on it was dried blood from the murder victim.

In this example, it would seem reasonable that Mark would refuse to take the tool from his colleague given the fact that he doesn’t have a close relationship with the colleague and that the request is very odd. A judge might decide that this should be a felony charge. It is considered a wobbler because the aid came after the murder transpired, but it is up to the judge to look at the events of the case and decide whether to charge it as a misdemeanor or a felony.

Let’s look at another example:

Tina is getting into her car late at night in an abandoned parking garage. A man jumps out from behind a beam holding a gun. He demands that she get in the car and drive him to an undisclosed location. The man is covered in a sticky substance and continues to hold the gun to the back of Tina’s chair while she drives him. At one point, he tells her to stop. He then gets out of the car and leaves. Later, police investigate the case and use camera footage from the parking garage to follow up with Tina. They confirm the blood from the victim and DNA from the murderer in the back of her car and charge her as an accessory after the fact.

In this case, it is much more likely that Tina would be charged with a misdemeanor and that she could build a solid defense with the help of her attorney that she was under duress. All of the evidence points to the fact that she did not knowingly and willingly help the murderer.

Now, let’s examine one more:

Jerry and his friend are fishing one day in Jerry’s boat. Jerry is a police officer. His friend is going through a nasty divorce after finding his wife cheating on him. The friend asks Jerry about different murder cases he has worked on in the precinct, what the best weapons were, the easiest ways to hide DNA, and how to prevent oneself from getting caught. Jerry, who is not allowed to talk about cases, nonetheless shares information with his friend in spite of the fact that the request is a bit odd and very specific given the circumstances.

In this situation, Jerry was helping his friend before the murder was committed. If, later, Jerry’s friend acts upon the information that he provided in order to murder the cheating spouse, then Jerry could be charged as an accessory before the fact. 

Also read:What’s the Difference Between Guilty and No Contest?

In the United States, there are three pleas the criminal defendant can make in the court of law, guilty, not guilty and no contest. Ev...

What Defenses Are There to Being an Accessory to Murder?

If you are charged with being an accessory to murder, it is imperative that you find a law firm with an attorney who can help cultivate an effective defense.

If a person committed a criminal offense under the penal code, they may not have done so knowingly. Some of the most prominent defenses to charges like aiding and abetting in most jurisdictions have to do with situations when:

  1. Someone did not realize that they were an accomplice to a murder. Perhaps they helped a friend in need or even a stranger but did not realize that the person they helped was planning to commit a murder or had already committed murder.
  2. No murder was actually committed.
  3. Someone was acting under duress. This happens when a murderer has forced someone at gunpoint to give them money to help them escape or has broken into someone’s home and taken their car after forcing them to hand over the keys.

If you look at the example involving Tina above, a clear defense would be that she acted under duress, which effectively means that the murderer made Tina help him get away.

Defenses for the other two examples might include not realizing that they were helping someone plan a murder or get away with murder.


The accessory to murder sentence is really based on the circumstances of the situation, the murder that took place, and the degree of murder — first or second degree. Overall, an accessory to murder is anyone who helps someone plan a murder or helps them after a murder has been committed. The charges vary based on whether the person helped before or after the murder took place. Helping before carries a felony charge, whereas helping after can carry a felony or a misdemeanor charge. In different circumstances, good attorneys can help build viable defenses, particularly in cases where someone is acting under duress.

Article by Megan Thompson

Megan Thompson is a legal writer at Lawrina. Megan writes about different law practice areas, legal innovations, and shares her knowledge about her legal practice. As a graduate of the American University's Washington College of Law she is an expert of law in Lawrina's team and has a slight editing touch to all content that is published on the website.

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