What is a Prime Suspect?

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  • Written By: wiseGEEK Writer
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 12 February 2020
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A prime suspect is a person believed by law enforcement officials to have committed a specific crime or more than one. The narrowing down of suspects to arrive at a single one, on which most investigation will focus, is necessary to obtain a criminal conviction. Often, investigators have a good sense of the identity of a perpetrator, but being a prime suspect doesn’t make a person guilty. Investigators need to prove guilt by linking a person, through evidence, in several ways to the crime committed. It’s noteworthy that prime suspects aren’t always guilty, and focused investigation of a suspect can sometimes overlook evidence linking other people to a crime.

There are many reasons why someone might be considered a prime suspect. The most desirable reason from an investigative standpoint is that there is a preponderance of different forms of evidence linking the person to the crime, such as DNA evidence, fingerprints, established intent to the commit the crime, witness testimony, and et cetera. Such crimes are easily solved and frequently prosecuted successfully.


In other instances, there is not significant evidence, or only a small amount that links the prime suspect to a crime. In these cases, existing evidence still makes it most likely that someone committed the crime, and more possible that the person suspected committed the crime instead of any other suspects. Occasionally, there are no other realistic suspects and it appears the prime suspect is the only person who could have committed a certain crime. In such a circumstance, someone may become the prime suspect by default.

Suspecting someone and convicting someone are not the same thing. Investigators can have good reasons for identifying a prime suspect, but this doesn’t mean they have evidence that courts or juries will accept. Once an investigation becomes focused on a particular individual, or a few people if the crime is thought to have multiple perpetrators, it turns to finding more evidence that can be successfully used in court to convict someone of a crime. There are many crimes lacking the evidence to try a prime suspect, and even if investigators are quite sure of a person’s guilt, they may not be able to do anything about it.

History of investigation is full of examples where people who were innocent were considered prime suspects. For instance, any types of kidnapping, child disappearance, or child murder cases tend to mean the first prime suspects are the parents, since parents have the most access to their children. For innocent parents, sudden accusations about hurting their own missing or deceased children can be devastating. Good investigatory techniques tend to mean such investigation of parents stops as soon as other leads are discovered, but many instances of hard-hitting investigation of parents have occurred. On the other hand, investigators have good reasons for identifying a parent or both parents as prime suspects because there is an equally long history of parents committing horrific crimes against their children, and statistically, parents, rather than others, are most likely to hurt their own children.


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