Accessory to Murder: What Does It Mean?

Updated May 3, 2024
6 min read
Paper titled "Accessory to Murder: What Does It Mean?"; CASE notebook, papers, handcuffs, police car

Murder charges are very serious. Equally serious are accessory to murder charges. An accessory to murder is anyone who helps someone commit 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.

What Is Accessory to Murder?

Accessory to murder is a criminal act that has to do with murder charges. The accessory to murder definition concerns that a person may be found guilty of helping or assisting a murderer either before or after the murder takes place.

Illustrating the gravity of facilitating or aiding in the commitment of a crime, it is crucial to comprehend the accessory to murder meaning. Under the law, it is illegal to incite, facilitate, or assist someone in committing a criminal act, such as murder. In every state, the penal code will charge you as an accessory to manslaughter either after the fact or before the fact.

Accessory to murders after the fact

A person who assists a murderer after they have already committed the crime is considered an accessory after the fact murder.

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. An affidavit document can help you formulate truthful statements under oath and introduce them to the court.

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 committed 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. The severity can escalate considerably if the charges pertain to an accessory to murders sentence.
  • If convicted of a felony charge, the punishment can include up to three years in a state prison and the same $5,000 fine.

Examples of the Accessory to Murder

A nuanced understanding of accessory to murder and examining concrete examples can be extremely beneficial. So, let’s look at the first 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 showed 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 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 investigated the case and used 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.

What Defenses Are There to Being an Accessory to Murder?

If you are charged with being an accessory to murder, you must 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 murder. Perhaps an accomplice to murders 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.

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