Parties to a Crime: Principal Offender, Accessories and Accomplices

Often more than one criminal defendant plays a role in the commission of a crime. Defendants working together with a common criminal purpose or design are acting with complicity.

When the participation and criminal conduct varies among the defendants, an issue arises as to who is responsible for which crime and to what degree.

Accomplices and Accessories

Like accomplices, accessories intentionally do something to help the principal commit a crime. While laws vary by jurisdiction, an accessory typically helps out either before or after the crime and is not physically present at the crime scene.


Conspirators are two or more people who agree to commit a crime. Conspiracy is related to aiding and abetting, but it’s the agreement that distinguishes the two offenses and makes each conspirator a principal offender.

In order to convict someone of conspiracy, prosecutors must prove that the person entered into an agreement with at least one more person to commit a crime. An aiding and abetting conviction doesn’t require such proof.

Conspiracy is a controversial crime, in part because conspirators can be guilty even if the crime they agree to commit never occurs. As a result, conspirators can be punished for their illegal plans rather than for what they actually do.

The Law and Conspirators

As some protection against convicting people purely for their private thoughts, in most jurisdictions conspirators are not guilty of the crime of conspiracy unless at least one of them does something (called an “overt act”) to help move the plan forward.

The overt act doesn’t have to be illegal. For instance, imagine two people enter into an agreement to break into the warehouse and steal its contents. Afterward, they meet at a coffee shop to plan exactly how to go through with the crime.

Getting together for coffee isn’t illegal, but the meeting could be considered an overt act because the two men had previously agreed to commit burglary.

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