"The judge said, 'Son, what's your alibi? If you were somewhere else, then you don't have to die.'"—"Long Black Veil"
Often, when someone is suspected of a crime, they can prove they were somewhere else at the time, or otherwise physically incapable of committing the crime. This is called an "alibi." It's a common plot element in the mystery and crime genres, but sometimes pops up elsewhere.
A common use in fiction is for a Wrongly Accused
person to have an alibi, but the one person who could prove it is missing, or for some reason denying the truth.
Alternately, a suspect may have a false alibi, and it's up to the protagonist detective/police to break the alibi. Genre Savvy
readers and viewers may immediately suspect the one person in a mystery whose alibi is too
airtight. Alibi accounts for the "opportunity" aspect of a crime
. A character who is found to have the remaining two (means and motive) will usually have his alibi scrutinized by the investigators.
Another use of The Alibi
in fiction is for the suspect's alibi to be that they were committing another crime at the time (traditionally adultery) and thus being unusable. Conversely, especially in short fiction from the viewpoint of the perpetrator, the ironclad false alibi they set up makes them the number one suspect in a completely different crime.
It's worth noting that in many jurisdictions, the use of an alibi defense requires the defense to notify the prosecution of the alibi ahead of the trial so that the evidence can be investigated before the trial begins. (This can save the time and expense of a wrongful trial.)
Contrast Conveniently Unverifiable Cover Story
, in which the point is to make it impossible to check whether a person was where they claim to have been; and Leave No Witnesses
, which tries to prevent anyone from being able to say they saw you at the scene of the crime.
Anime and Manga
- Lupin III:
- Lupin III (Green Jacket), in the pilot episode, had Lupin racing in a Formula 1 car, with Inspector Zenigata chasing behind him. While he's just out of sight, he switches places with Jigen, who is driving an identical car. When the nearby hotel explodes and Zenigata attempts to blame Lupin, Lupin points out that Zenigata is his alibi: proof that Lupin couldn't be responsible for the crime.
- Lupin III (Red Jacket) second episode, "Guns, Bun, and Fun in the Sun", has Lupin (along with Jigen and Goemon) arrested for drunk driving. They set up a projector to show the three still in jail as they escape and pull off the episode's heist. It would've worked, except Inspector Zenigata was too suspicious and checked out their cell personally.
- One EC Comics story had a man meet a stranger on a deserted road miles away from the location of the crime he was later accused of. Because of the heinousness of the crime, the trial was brought quickly, and the execution scheduled within two months. All the time, the accused man's pleas for the witness to step forward went unmet. Finally, we learn who the alibi witness was. It was the state executioner, who had an extended leave of absence after the stress of his job caused him to have a nervous breakdown, and had not seen a newspaper or listened to the news in months. Let's hope he never found out the truth...
- Identity Crisis: Many readers figured out who the killer was in the first issue, because even though that person wasn't listed as a suspect at all, the story went out of its way to provide them an alibi.
- In the Tom Selleck film Her Alibi Selleck plays a man who goes along with a woman pretending to be her alibi proving she couldn't have committed the murder she has been accused of. He starts having doubts after a while.
- In the Alan Handley novel, Kiss Your Elbow, actor protagonist Tim Briscoe finds his agent murdered. One of the most obvious suspects is the actress who had the appointment immediately before his. He drops the suspicion, however, when it turns out she missed the appointment because she drunkenly trapped herself in the bathroom for the last four hours. This turns out to have been true, a good thing for Tim because he's not a good detective.
- In Night Watch, at the time that Lord Winder is scheduled to die, one conspirator assures another that Snapcase, an obvious suspect, is "dining quietly but visibly in impeccable company on the other side of town".
- In the Decoy episode "Fiesta at Midnight", the accused murderer's alibi is a girl named Maria he tried to hit on at midnight, who told him she was getting married on Sunday. But there are no records of any Maria having a wedding on that date. It doesn't help that the one other person who knows that Maria exists is lying to protect the real killer. The police finally realize that Maria meant "married to God", that is, becoming a nun. Happy ending ensues.
- The Court of Last Resort episode "The John Smith Case", has the alibi witness located after 22 years. He was a hobo who'd hopped the rails later that night and never knew Smith had been arrested. But he remembers the details clearly, because it had been his birthday, and Smith had spent his last dollar buying him food.
- NCIS: One episode uses "Alibi" as a title. A Marine is killed in a hit and run. The vehicle owner is suspected. Said owner uses attorney/client privilege to secure his alibi. The attorney checks out the alibi and confirms it. The attorney promptly points Gibbs at a second crime without directly connecting it to her client. Turns out, he was across town, committing a different crime at the time. See the trope description for why the attorney/client privilege would only have been a stopgap if the case went to trial.
- On Rookie Blue a man is suspected of abducting and killing a child but his brother insists that they were together all night and never left the house. The cops assume that the brother is lying but the case is not strong enough to go to trial without breaking the alibi first. It's only years later that the cops realize that the brother was providing a false alibi for himself. He was actually the murderer and lying about where the original suspect was (the guy got drunk and slept it off in his car) also provided him with an alibi for the night. The cops already suspected that he was lying about that night, but they were wrong about what he was lying about.
- On Fargo Lester creates an alibi for himself for the murder of Linda, his second wife that he did not commit but witnessed from across the street. He is the natural suspect for the crime and if he told the truth, it would expose the lies he told to cover up a murder he did commit. He quickly goes to a nearby diner and makes a big deal about the victim meeting him there in a few minutes. He then pretends to go to the bathroom but instead sneaks outside where he uses a pay phone to call the police to report gunshots. This skews the timeline enough that the diner owner would report that Lester was in the diner at the time of the murder. The police know that he is lying and use him as bait to catch Malvo, Linda's actual killer.
- The song "Long Black Veil", which provides our page quote, has a man whose alibi is that he had been in the arms of his best friend's wife. Rather than reveal this and disgrace her, he chooses to stay mum and die.