Culprit: Definition & Concept

Instructor: Jessica Schubert

Jessica is a practicing attorney and has taught law and has a J.D. and LL.M.

During this lesson, you will start to understand what constitutes a culprit. You will also review the history of the term and go over modern-day terminology and some procedural issues.


A culprit can be defined in several different ways. Initially, a culprit can be a person who is accused of a crime. Next, a culprit can be a person who's been indicted by a grand jury of a crime. An indictment is a finding by a panel of uninterested (unbiased) people that there is adequate evidence to file charges against the person. In addition, a culprit can refer to a person who is waiting for trial. Thus, in this context, the culprit has been arrested and charged with a crime.

For instance, let's say that Jason is arrested for murder. He would be referred to as a culprit, or a defendant (as explained further in the lesson, below). Moreover, if he's charged with the crime or indicted and awaiting trial, Jason will also be considered the culprit, or the defendant.

History of the Term

From Latin, 'culprit' is formed from two different words: 'cul' and 'prit.' 'Cul' translates to culpable or guilty, while 'prit' is from 'paratus' which means that the presiding judge ruled that the individual was guilty of a crime. The history of the term is from English rule, where the king would charge prisoners with crimes.

Modern Terminology

These days, the term 'culprit' is not used. Instead, 'culprit' is referred to as 'defendant.' A defendant is a person who has been charged with something. In criminal law cases, the person charged with the crime is known as the defendant. In civil cases, the party who is sued is also known as the defendant. Each of these individuals must answer to the charges or complaints filed against them.

Culprit/Defendant Court Actions

When someone is involved in a case, how that person proceeds depends upon the type of case. For example, in a criminal action, the first official appearance by a defendant is the arraignment, when the formal charges are read in court to the defendant. Frequently, the defendant themselves is not present in court for certain proceedings, such as bail hearings. A bail hearing is a court proceeding where the judge will set the amount of a bond the defendant must post in order to get released pending their actual court case date. It's not necessarily the same as what you see in the movies or on TV.

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