In Massachusetts, criminal defendants can obviously be punished for personally committing a crime. Criminal defendants can also be punished if they intentionally assist someone else in committing a crime, even if they are not personally involved in the actual commission of a crime. This legal principle is called “joint venture” (also known as aiding and abetting). Joint venturers are subject to the same penalties as the principal. For example, a person who is convicted of first-degree murder under a joint venture theory will be sentenced to life in prison.
Under a joint venture prosecution, the Commonwealth bears the burden of proving beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant:
In all of these scenarios, the person who provided assistance to the person actually committing the crime could be charged with the same crime as a joint venturer.
Remember that the Commonwealth is required to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the joint venturer intended to be helpful to the principal. Mere presence at a crime scene is insufficient to support a criminal conviction. Even if an individual knows about the intended crime in advance and did nothing to try to prevent the intended crime, he cannot be convicted unless the Commonwealth proves he intended to assist the principal in some meaningful way.
What happens when someone is involved in the planning of a crime but decides ahead of time not to go through with it? A person can withdraw from a joint venture and not face criminal sanctions. A defendant withdraws only when he communicates his withdrawal from the joint venture to everyone else involved and does so early enough to allow the other joint venturers to abandon their plan to commit the crime. If the defendant argues at trial that he withdrew from a joint venture, the Commonwealth bears the burden of proving beyond a reasonable doubt that the withdrawal was not sufficient.
The person who assists the principal after the crime has been completed is not guilty under a joint venture theory, but he could be charged with accessory after the fact.
The most common defense in these cases is that the defendant simply did not know what was happening around him. For example, was the defendant intentionally acting as a getaway driver or was he simply offering a ride to a friend? It’s often difficult for the prosecutor to prove the alleged joint venturer knew about the crime and was actively participating in its commission.