What is a Suspect?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 13 May 2020
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A suspect is a person who is believed to be linked with a crime. Commonly, law enforcement officials think that the suspect is the perpetrator, the person who actually committed a crime. Depending on the nature of a case, several suspects may emerge and be eliminated with the assistance of detective work, or police may only have a single suspect to work with. Sometimes no suspect emerges. If a witness positively identifies someone as the person who committed a crime, that person is more properly known as the perpetrator.

The difference between suspect, accused, and perpetrator can get a bit complicated, and these terms are sometimes misused, especially in the press. When law enforcement personnel believe that someone has committed a crime without any solid proof, that person is considered a suspect. Suspects may have behaved unusually, left trace evidence at a crime scene, and so forth, but they have not been positively identified as the actors who committed the crime. Suspects may be temporarily taken into custody for questioning, and they may also be asked to submit samples of hair, fibers, and so forth to see if they can be matched with evidence found at the crime scene.

If a suspect is formally brought to trial, he or she becomes the accused. The accused is entitled to an assortment of rights which are not available to a suspect, in recognition of the fact that the accused needs to be able to mount an effective defense in court. If the outcome of a trial is a guilty verdict, the accused becomes the convicted, and goes on record as the perpetrator.

Police sometimes use the term “person of interest” to describe a suspect. This term is used in part because of the negative associations with the word “suspect.” Many members of the general public confuse suspects with perpetrators, and when it is announced that someone is a suspect in a case, the public may assume that this means he or she actually committed the crime. A person of interest, on the other hand, is simply someone the police would like to have a conversation with.

The use of the term “suspect” to describe someone who may be involved with a crime dates back to the late 16th century. Since then, the legal system has changed radically, and there are many steps between being listed as a suspect and being convicted of a crime. Suspects are also entitled to certain legal rights in many nations such as the right not to implicate themselves in a crime, and typically they can only be held in custody for a brief period of time before they must either be formally charged or released.

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Post 7

The perpetrator is the person who did it. Even after a person passes from suspect to accused to defendant to convicted, he still may not be the perpetrator.

Post 6

A guilty verdict does not make the accused into the perpetrator. It makes the accused (or the defendant) into a convict. They could be falsely convicted! In that case, they are the convicted, but they are not the perpetrator.

Post 5

It's true that every scene has a first suspect, but that doesn't mean/conclude that the suspect is guilty until proven guilty beyond reasonable doubt!

Post 4

A suspect is only suspected, and he/she becomes the accused, if taken to court and charges are read and the judge enters a plea. If the evidence turns out to be overwhelmingly in favor of the prosecution and the guilty verdict is entered, then the person is confirmed to be the perpetrator. Thanks for the insight.

Post 2

There does not have to be a lack of solid proof for a person to be a suspect. Even if the evidence is overwhelming, the accused is a suspect until a verdict is reached.

Post 1

A suspect does not become a perpetrator just because a victim says so. The perpetrator is the person who did it. The suspect is the person suspected, but not proven, to be the perpetrator.

Only after conviction is the suspect properly called the perpetrator.

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