What is a Culprit?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 07 March 2020
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A culprit is someone who has committed a crime. The origins of the word lie in the French language, and in fact the term originally referred not to someone who was guilty, but to someone who was on trial for a crime. Today, terms such as “accused” or “defendant” are more likely to be used in a court of law than “culprit” to describe someone who is on trial for something, in recognition of the fact that being on trial does not necessarily mean that one is guilty. In fact, the purpose of the trial is to determine whether or not someone really is the offender.

People may use terms like perpetrator, malefactor, or offender to describe a culprit. In all cases, these words describe someone who perpetrated a crime, or who is responsible for a criminal event. Sometimes “culprit” is also used to describe objects which are responsible for negative events, as commonly seen in news headlines such as “new culprit found for rising fuel prices.” In this case, the “culprit” in the headline is not a human being, but something else.


For law enforcement, identifying the culprit is an important part of a criminal investigation. Law enforcement officers do not want crimes to go unpunished, and they are particularly interested in apprehending culprits when it is likely that the crime will be repeated, as a matter of public safety. In addition, they want to make sure that they get the right person, so that the guilty culprit will be tried and punished instead of walking free while someone else takes the blame.

Once it has been demonstrated that someone is the culprit, punishment can be meted on the basis of the severity of the crime, the circumstances in which it took place, and the culprit's history. Most nations allow the judge some leeway when it comes to making sentencing decisions, although for some types of crimes mandatory sentencing laws may be in place.

People who are suspected of crimes are generally given a number of rights and protections under the law which are designed to ensure that they have access to a fair trial. They are entitled to legal representation, for example, so that they can defend themselves in court. They must also be given access to the supporting information used to build a case against them, and they have an opportunity to question people who give evidence.


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Post 2

@Mammmood - That’s an interesting and useful analysis. I think we forgot that in our criminal system you are innocent until proven guilty.

Yes, we hear news reporters talk about someone “allegedly” committing a crime, but media publicity usually makes that person appear already guilty in the eyes of the public.

For that reason, I’ve long believed that we shouldn’t have cameras in the courtroom, especially in high profile cases. Cameras turn the whole courtroom process into a soap opera, and the public forms its opinions, with television commentators abetting them. They've usually turned the suspects into culprits before the jury has convened.

Post 1

So the culprit definition moves someone from the category of being a mere “suspect” to being a criminal. This person becomes a culprit after the verdict has been handed down, and the defendant has been found guilty.

On that same note, I think it’s important to clarify that an indictment is what moves someone from simply being a “person of interest” to becoming a “suspect.”

Sometimes we hear in the news that so and so was indicted, and the words carry the sort of gravitas that we usually mete out to the criminal.

However, I believe we should point out that indictment simply means that they can be formally charged with a crime; they may in fact be innocent.

If you’re a culprit, however, you’re the man.

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