The words accomplices, accessories and aiders and abettors are often used in referring to a concept known as "accomplice liability." Generally, this means that if you knowingly help another person commit a crime, you can also be convicted of that crime, regardless of your role in it.
The Principal in the First Degree Actually Commits the Crime
A "principal in the first degree" is the person who actually commits the crime. For example, a principal in the first degree is the person who fires the gun that kills the homicide victim. You can also be a principal in the first degree if you force an innocent person to commit a crime.
The Principal in the Second Degree Is at the Scene and Helps
A "principal in the second degree" is a person who is at the scene of the crime and who intentionally helps the principal in the first degree commit the crime. For example, suppose that A robs a bank, while B stands guard at the door and C remains in the car, ready to drive them away. B and C are both principals in the second degree.
An Accessory Before the Fact Helps Before a Crime
An "accessory before the fact" is the one who intentionally helps a person commit a crime, but who is not at the scene. For example, assume that A asks B to murder C, and provides B with a gun intending that B use the gun to kill C. Two days later, B shoots and kills C. A is an accessory before the fact. A furnished the gun and was not present at the time of the killing. An accessory may be convicted of the same crime as the principal in the first degree. Therefore, both A and B could be convicted for the murder of C.
An Accessory After the Fact Helps After the Crime
An accessory after the fact is a person who knowingly helps a person avoid arrest, trial, or conviction. Suppose that A robs a bank and is running from the police. A runs to his friend B's house and asks to stay the night, and B agrees. If B is aware that A robbed a bank and is being chased by the police, B would be an accessory after the fact. If B was unaware, B would not be an accessory after the fact.
An Accomplice Helps or Encourages a Person to Commit a Crime
You are an accomplice if you encourage or help someone to commit a crime, even if you only helped the other person a little bit. You cannot be an accomplice if you did not actually help the other person commit the crime.
A Criminal Lawyer Can Help
The law surrounding the law on accomplice liability is complicated. Plus, the facts of each case are unique. This article provides a brief, general introduction to the topic. For more detailed, specific information, please contact a criminal lawyer.