If someone aids in the killing of another person but isn’t present when the murder is committed, they can be charged as an “accessory to murder.”

We can think of accessory to murder in two main categories:

  • Accessory before the fact is when someone helps someone else before they commit murder. For example, this could be buying a gun for someone, knowing that the person was going to use it to harm someone else.
  • Accessory after the fact is when someone helps someone else after they commit murder. An example here could be driving a getaway car after the homicide.

Accessory to murder is usually charged as a felony in California, and it can carry substantial penalties. If you or someone you know has been accused of accessory to murder, it’s important to speak with a criminal defense attorney right away. Your attorney can help you navigate your case and build your defense.

What is accessory to murder in California?

California charges accessory to murder depending on whether it was “before the fact” or “after the fact.”

  • Accessory before the fact is charged as “aiding and abetting” under California Penal Code 31 PC. This law makes it illegal to encourage, facilitate, incite or aid in the commission of a criminal act.
  • Accessory after the fact is charged as under Penal Code 32 PC. In this case, it’s illegal to harbor, conceal or aid someone else with knowledge that they committed a felony.

In both cases, in order to prove that a person is guilty of accessory to murder, a prosecutor will have to prove:

  1. The defendant had knowledge of the crime, either beforehand or afterward, and
  2. The defendant intentionally acted to aid the perpetrator (also called the “principal offender”).

In other words, it’s not accessory to murder if someone unintentionally aids someone else before or after they commit a murder. 

This also means that a person cannot be convicted of accessory to murder if they acted under “duress,” meaning that the defendant acted because they were forced by the principal offender and feared for their safety.

Penalties for accessory to murder

Penalties for accessory to murder can vary, depending on how the crime is charged:

In aiding and abetting cases, the defendant typically faces the same charges and penalties as the principal offender. That means for murder cases, the aider and abettor could face up to life in prison without parole.

Accessory after the fact is a “wobbler,” meaning that it can be treated as a misdemeanor or felony depending on the facts of the case and the defendant’s criminal history.

  • As a misdemeanor, accessory after the fact is punishable by imprisonment in county jail for up to a year and fines of up to $5,000.
  • As a felony, accessory after the fact can lead to up to three years in state prison and fines of up to $5,000.

Defenses against ‘accessory to murder’ charges

As we mentioned above, there are a number of defenses against accessory to murder charges. These include arguments such as lack of intent, duress or the simple fact that the principal offender didn’t actually commit murder.

It all comes down to the specifics of your case. Your attorney can work with you to carefully and thoughtfully review the facts and evidence of your case, working to craft the ideal defense for you.

Robert M. Helfend is a specialist in homicide cases, having served the Greater Los Angeles area since 1984. Call today for your free case evaluation – 800-834-6434.