Someone is accused of a crime they did not commit, and must haul ass to prove their innocence.
Sometimes, the person accused of the crime is someone else, who is incapable of proving their own innocence. Maybe they've already been arrested or convicted, and had the key thrown away long ago. Maybe the evidence is stacked up against them and almost nobody believes them. Maybe they're just not badass enough to do it themselves. Either way, it's up to the Big Damn Heroes to buck the odds and naysayers, find the evidence and Clear Their Name.
The poor sap locked up will usually have one person — often a beloved relative or a best friend (who's actually in love with them, hence their fixated devotion) — who remains committed to their cause, and who brings in the often-initially skeptical heroes to investigate the case. In some cases, the loved one's devotion to the wrongfully accused will persist even if the wrongfully accused has given hope of being exonerated. If the hero's good enough, they may learn of the case independently and offer their services to the skeptical police, who are convinced they've got the right person locked up. In some cases, the police might be corrupt and actively perpetuating a Miscarriage of Justice in order to obscure the true culprit or another crime.
Given the nature of the trope, it usually occurs in media which involves defense attorneys or Private Detectives unaffiliated by the police, although particularly conscientious police officers may find themselves also working to clear some innocent's name.
Occasionally the person who's locked will up be guilty after all. Another popular twist is to have the guilty party be the one who wants the accused cleared (often because of feelings of guilt) but doesn't have the guts (or in some odd cases can't prove it as it looks like they're just taking the fall for them) to confess.
If it's the protagonist who has to prove himself/herself innocent in the face of a false accusation, it's Clear My Name.
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Anime and Manga
Victorique from Gosick does this for her mother back in her home town, where she was accused of killing a priest and was banished.
Variation in Monster: the hero, Dr. Tenma, isWrongly Accused. However, he doesn't really care about clearing his name, considering stopping Johan, the actual culprit, much more important. However, some of his friends do care, and spend their time piecing together information in the interests of proving Tenma innocent.
It's not really a crime, but it would count into this trope: In Kotoura-san, Yuriko's mother was falsely accused of having faked her Super Sensesand was eventually Driven to Suicide, an accusation that existed up to this day. This is Yuriko's motivation to study psychics and act as something akin of Hero Secret Service.
Takes place more than once in Detective Conan, with people hiring Kogoro to prove that they didn't do something they've been accused of. Sometimes they're innocent, sometimes... well, they're not.
In Dengeki Daisy Kurosaki's reason for becoming a hacker was to prove to himself (and everyone else) that his father was not really a traitor.
An old Spider-Man story revealed that Spidey's parents Richard and Mary had been secret agents who had been killed in action by a supervillain, then framed as traitors as a final insult. Spidey then went on a quest to clear his parents' names.
The Batman storyline Bruce Wayne: Fugitive had this. The Bat-family teamed up to figure out if Bruce truly did kill his latest girlfriend in an attempt to protect his identity. The kicker comes from the fact that, during this time, Batman's just said "Screw This" and abandoned the Bruce Wayne identity.
Another Batman-related storyline, The Joker: Devil's Advocate, revolves around this: While vandalizing the post office, the Joker is suddenly arrested, tried, and sentenced to die for the incident involving the poisoned stamps, but he insists that he has been framed and asks Batman to help him find the real perpetrator for the poisoned stamps and clear his name. Near the end, the real perpetrator is found and reveals himself, and the Joker is pardoned, just mere seconds before he is to be executed by the electric chair, knowing that his name is at least in the clear.
One episode of Children of Time sees Sherlock Holmes framed for murder, and the Doctor and Watson must prove that his innocence before his sentence is carried out. They get their evidence, but not in time to keep Holmes from suffering an And I Must Scream sentence. Fortunately, the Doctor is able to reverse the process, and Holmes is physically all right... but mentally scarred.
In "Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality", Hermione is accused of the attempted murder of Draco Malfoy. He and she both have their memories magically altered so even she thinks she did it, and it's up to Harry to stop the Wizengamot from sending her to Azkaban
True Believer, starring James Woods and Robert Downey Jr. as a couple of defense lawyers who re-open a previously closed case to expose a miscarriage of justice of this nature.
National Treasure 2: They're not trying to help an innocent person avoid jail, but rather clear the name of the main character's ancestor, who is being wrongly accused of assisting in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, when in fact he sacrificed himself to keep the South from regaining power based on a secret he discovered. A further twist is that the ancestor's name being smeared turned out to be an Evil Plan orchestrated by the antagonist.
In Sin City, parole officer Lucille takes the cases for both Marv and John Hartigan and tries desperately to clear their names. She doesn't and actually gets killed in the process in Marv's story.
As is The Boscombe Valley Mystery. Although he's brought in by Lestrade originally, Holmes becomes convinced that the suspect is innocent early on and is encouraged to investigate further by said young man's childhood friend, who'd very much like to be his girlfriend, actually.
The Norwood Builder is another example, in which a young man was accused of murdering a wealthy old curmudgeon who had recently named him his heir.
The Man With The Twisted Lip. While not his primary objective, Holmes does prove that the titular man did not abscond with the missing man while figuring out what happened to him.
The Beryl Coronet. Holmes was mainly concerned with finding the missing part of the coronet, but he did prove that the banker's son was not the one who stole it in the process.
Silver Blaze. Holmes' primary concern was finding the missing horse, not proving that the man arrested for stealing it (and killing the stable master) wasn't responsible, even though he ultimately did both.
Thor Bridge. Holmes proved the governess had not murdered the client's wife.
Lion's Mane. Holmes proves that Murdoch was not responsible for McPherson's death (not that there was sufficient evidence to arrest in this case).
Dancing Men. Holmes was hired to investigate some strange drawings by a man who is later killed. He cracks the code and proves that the man sending the coded messages was the killer, not the client's wife, who not only was wrongfully accused of killing the man but had been seriously injured and quite at risk of being hanged if she ever recovered.
A Study in Scarlet. Inspector Gregson arrested a suspect for the first murder, and Holmes later found the man who committed both murders (to be fair, Gregson's suspect did have a plausible motive).
The Sign of the Four. Athelney Jones arrests virtually everyone present at the murder scene for complicity in the murder. After Holmes tracked down the parties responsible it turned out that one of the people Jones had arrested really was involved, which doesn't change the fact that Holmes had cleared the names of everyone else in that household.
Noble Bachelor. At one point the missing woman's maid was suspected of either kidnapping her or working with an unidentified kidnapper. Holmes proved that no kidnapping had taken place.
Black Peter. While Neligan was caught red-handed in attempted burglary (of stock certificates stolen from his murdered father, and thus were arguably his property to begin with), he did not kill Black Peter, and Holmes was able to find the true killer.
Abbey Grange has a unique version. An unidentified American police officer clears the Randall gang of a murder in Kent by arresting them for their other crimes in New York the morning after the murder (overnight travel from England to America being impossible in 1897).
The Bruce-Partington Plans. A state secret has been stolen, and suspicion falls on a clerk who was murdered the same night (some of the papers, but not the most important, were found in his pocket). The dead man's fiancee appeals to Holmes to save his honor, as she puts it. He was already on the case for a different reason - figuring out what had happened to the missing papers.
This happens to pilot Tycho Celchu in the X-Wing Series - he was briefly held by The Empire's mistress of brainwashing, so he's suspected of having been turned, they dumped thousands of credits into his bank accounts, he was seen with someone who from behind looked liked one of the prominent Imperials, and he was in position to kill Corran Horn. Who did not actually die. All the Rogues indicate that they think he's innocent, but not a lot of others share that opinion. It's mentioned that most of the evidence is circumstantial, but there's a mountain of it, so it looks like he's either guilty and made to look innocent through a clumsy frame, or innocent made to look guilty clumsily made to look innocent. This is what the bad guys intend, since his trial adds to the New Republic's problems-it's planned that evidence will be released to prove him innocent after he's been found guilty and put to death.
Wedge Antilles eventually does find evidence of the real traitor Erisi Dlarit. It helps that just a few minutes prior, the "victim" had entered the courtroom (nullifying the murder charge in the process, but not the other charges), and had figured out not only the identity of the traitor, but also that one of the investigators—General Cracken, Intelligence chief—already knew that Tycho was innocent (but he did not if he wasn't a real Imperial agent, just framed in this case for some plot). Cracken, however, deliberately let the trial continue in hopes of flushing out the real traitor, and after the trial took steps to make sure that Tycho's good name was restored.
The premise behind The Life Of David Gale: a journalist tries to clear the titular character of murder charges while he is on death row but she is doomed to just barely fail to stop his execution as the whole thing was a plan to end the death penalty by showing that innocents are killed with it.
Another example from classic American literature is The Witch of Blackbird Pond. Protagonist Kit is accused of witchcraft in Salem, and can't prove her own innocence. Luckily, her Love Interest Nat finds the child who can verify that she hasn't done anything wrong, and brings her to the courthouse in time to save Kit from conviction.
In the 1925 novel Not Under the Law, protagonist Joyce Radway leaves home after a fight with her cousin and takes up residence in a city some miles away. No one knows what's become of her, but several months later she happens to see her hometown newspaper and discovers that a close childhood friend has been accused of her murder. She heads home in time to interrupt the trial and prove that she's still alive.
This is the plot of Sarah Caudwell's mystery Thus Was Adonis Murdered: Julia gets arrested for murder while on holiday in Venice, and Hilary has to remotely solve the murder so as to get her off.
In The Roman Mysteries book Slavegirl of Jerusalem, the main characters must clear the name of a slavegirl falsely accused of murder.
In the second book of the Knight and Rogue Series Fisk is called home to prove his brother-in-law innocent. Said brother-in-law, Max, was accused of having bribed several witnesses no falsely acuse two men so he could have them hung.
This is most of the plot of Iorich. Aliera was arrested on a very stupid, transparent charge and she refuses to talk to a lawyer or put up a decent defense. Vlad decides that even if she is a jerkass, he'd still prefer she didn't get executed, and he finds the idea of her owing him her life hilarious.
In Heist Society, Kat is dragged back into the family business when her father is accused of stealing from a very dangerous man. The only way to keep her father and the rest of her family safe is to steal the paintings back.
In A Passage to India, set in the British Raj, Dr. Aziz is falsely accused of attempted rape by Englishwoman Adela Quested, prompting his friends Cyril Fielding, Vikram Hamidullah, and Mahmoud Ali to rally around him. Adela ultimately withdraws her accusation.
In the Tommy and Tuppence story "Finessing the King/The Gentleman Dressed In Newspaper", Inspector Marriot arrests the victim's lover, and tells Tommy and Tuppence repeatedly that it's an open-and-shut case. Tuppence realises that he's trying to wind them up, since his instincts tell him the man is innocent, but is constrained by the evidence.
In the Hercule Poirot novel Five Little Pigs, Carla Lemarchant hires Poirot to clear her mother of her father's murder, even though her mother died in prison sixteen years earlier.
Live Action Television
Nine times out of ten, this is the plot that Perry Mason has to deal with.
There's been a few episodes in the Law & Order franchise where the detectives have had to either re-open an old case due to new evidence or have had to do a 180 on a guy they themselves locked up.
In the popular and famous Korean television drama Jewel In the Palace, protagonist Jang Geum's main purpose throughout the entire story is to clear the name of both her deceased mother and her mentor (who were both framed and wrongfully accused and executed for a crime they didn't commit).
This trope commonly occurs in a lot of Asian historical dramas, normally in the form of children trying to clear the name of their parents. Justified in that family name is extremely important in such cultures.
Star Trek: The Next Generation: In "Sins of the Father" Worf has to clear the name of his deceased father, who has been accused by the Klingon High Council of treason. This is Serious Business for a Klingon, as this means Worf and his descendants all become dishonored as well if his father can't be cleared.
In the 1987 BBC adaptation of Dorothy L. Sayers' Have His Carcase, this trope is lampshaded by both Flora Weldon (the distraught widow and fiancee of Paul Alexis) and Lord Peter himself. After Alexis' body is finally found and an inquest is held, the coroner's verdict prompts comments that his name must be cleared of suicide. The book was written and set in the early 1930s and suicide was illegal for several centuries in England and Wales (until it ceased to be an offence with the passing of the Suicide Act of 1961)note A person who successfully committed suicide might be beyond the law's reach, but the dead person's corpse and property were not. Attempting suicide was originally a capital crime which people were hanged for, ironically.
A rather convoluted example in Lizzie McGuire. After Lizzie and Matt end up switching minds for some reason, they have to cope with it for the day. Lizzie, in Matt's body, ends up learning that he (or rather, her brother) was being punished for a prank that (this time) Matt was completely innocent of involving soap and the drinking fountain. It turns out the person responsible was actually a kid who wanted revenge against Matt because he often ruins his pudding.
Common in the CSI: Crime Scene Investigation franchise. In the original, the team has to clear Nick of murdering a prostitute. And much later, Warrick of killing a gangster. CSI NY has Hawkes and Danny both having to have their names cleared by Mac and the team at various times.
Shawn and Gus help a man freed from prison find out who committed the crime he was imprisoned for in the Psych episode "True Grits." One episode has another cop frame Lassiter to become the suspect of a murder. There's also an episode called "Gus's Dad May Have Killed an Old Guy," in which Gus' father is suspected of killing his Jerkass neighbor.
Tony finds out he sent an innocent man to prison in the NCIS episode "Bounce".
Ellery Queen: In "The Adventure of Caesar's Last Sleep", Sgt. Veelie is accused of the murder and Inspector Queen and Ellery have to clear his name.
In the case of Devious Maids, the reason Marisol is working as a maid for a wealthy couple is that her son is being framed for the murder of another couple's maid so she goes to work as a maid for one of their friends in order to find out the real culprit.
Criminal Minds: This becomes the plot of the episode "25 To Life" when it turns out that a man who's just been paroled didn't commit the murders he was convicted of, and the hunt for the real killers begins.
In the first episode of The Musketeers, the Musketeers and Athos in particular was framed for murder and robbery. Aramis and Porthos set out to clear his name and D'Artagnan becomes involved since his father was one of the murdered.
Porthos in episode 5 was found passed out drunk next to a dead man, his gun and a melon.
In Quantum Leap, the trilogy of episodes revolving around Sam's efforts to save Abigail Fuller from Leda Ader by leaping into different points in Abby's life ended this way. In a last desperate insane attempt to destroy Abby, Leda framed Abby for her own murder, by sneaking into Abby's kitchen and used a knife she knew had Abby's fingerprints on it to slit her own throat. Sam, having leaped into the attorney who was one of the only people in Abby's life who believed she was innocent of any wrongdoing, barely manages to clear her name.
The music video for Madonna's "Like a Prayer" features a rowdy white gang who attack and gang-rape a white woman and leave her for dead, while a black man (portrayed by Leon Robinson) tries to stop it but they pin the crime on him and have the police arrest him. The heroine witnesses all that is happening, then goes to a church and intercedes with a black saint for help, then gathers up her courage and has to clear the black man's name of the murder.
About the first 1/3 of Breath of Fire 2 is about Ryu persuing the culprit of a robbery his friend Bosch/Bow was accused of.
In Emerald City Confidential, Petra, the resident private detective, is hired by Trot to investigate a ship explosion at the city docks. Though the authorities are convinced that the ship's captain caused the explosion, Trot is convinced that he is innocent and asks Petra to find who the real perpetrator is.
There's a number of quests in The Witcher games, where corrupt and racist guards are about to execute people of some minority for apparently made up crimes. True to the general style of the series, the accusers may be biggoted asses, but their victims not much better either.
Ace Attorney is another one that stands with Perry Mason and Matlock. The goal in every case to clear the name of their client and determine the true culprit. A good third of the suspects even insist on pleading guilty, making the lawyer's job that much harder. In Investigations Edgeworth usually has to clear at least two suspects per case in order to get to the real murderer- even though he's usually a prosecutor!
Done twice in the second game's final case. First Phoenix accuses Adrian to get Matt cleared, then discovers that neither were technically guilty—Matt had hired an assassin to do the job for him. Phoenix must then clear Adrian's name in order to re-incriminate Matt, all the while pretending that he's still defending Matt.
In case 4 of Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney, getting the culprit and clearing the defendant's name are the defense's only goals after the defendant starts suffering from an apparently mortal poisoning.
In case 4 of Trials and Tribulations, Mia takes on the case of a death row convict already convicted for murder once before. She very nearly gets him cleared on both charges, but he commits suicide rather than let the real killer, his Manipulative Bitch of a girlfriend, go to jail for her crimes.
In Dangan Ronpa, most of your classmates have a tendency to spring to conclusions, fingering the first and most obvious suspect. On top of this, the accused often act in ways that only make them look guiltier. Thus, it falls to you to clear the accused's name while working towards exposing the real culprit.
The first game's second case has a particularly twisty example: someone tampers with the crime scene solely to expose another's secret, meaning you have to clear them of suspicion before fingering the true murderer.
In one episode of DuckTales, Uncle Scrooge is sentenced to prison for the theft of a priceless piece of art, thanks to some pretty damning evidence — footage from the museum security camera. Huey, Dewey and Louie believe in his innocence, however, and ultimately uncover the proof that it was really Flintheart Glomgold in an Uncle Scrooge costume.
The very first Sideshow Bob episode in The Simpsons had Bart trying to clear Krusty the Clown of committing armed robbery. Bob pulled it off with a very convincing disguise, but was foiled when Bart pointed out that the real culprit (Bob), unlike the real Krusty, had really big feet. Bob and Bart have been Arch Enemies ever since.
Bart himself was suspected of having Principal Skinner murdered by gangsters after Skinner's keeping him in detention prevented him from getting to work at Fat Tony's club and caused Fat Tony a lot of trouble with a fellow crime boss. The mobsters do everything they can to make Bart look like the mastermind and make themselves look innocent, and it looks like Bart is going to go to jail until Skinner himself interrupts the trial and proves Bart's innocence. As it turns out, the reason Skinner disappeared was because he became trapped under a large pile of newspapers while cleaning out his garage. He was stuck for several days before he managed to free himself.
One of the ongoing plotlines in Skysurfer Strike Force is clearing the name of the deceased, Dr. Adam Hollister, father of Jack Hollister aka Skysurfer One.
In the third act of the Mr. Bogus episode "Bogus Private Eye", Mr. Anybody's watch was stolen by a mysterious criminal who had entered the house at night, even after Kevin the family bulldog's attempts to try and get the watch back only succeeds in the watch band getting broken in two and the thief escaping with the actual watch. When Mr. Anybody comes downstairs after hearing the racket and sees Kevin with the piece of the broken watch band in his mouth, he assumes that Kevin stole his watch, calls him a bad dog, then takes him outside as punishment. Bogus then works hard to see if he can solve the mystery and prove Kevin's innocence. The next night, when the thief returns, Bogus sics Kevin on the thief, who, this time, fails in trying to escape as Kevin catches him. After the thief is unmasked, he is actually revealed to be Ratty in disguise the whole time. When Mr. Anybody shows up again and sees that Kevin caught Ratty and got the watch back, he realizes that it was actually Ratty who stole the watch, thereby vindicating Kevin.
The forms the basis of the pilot film for Chip 'n Dale Rescue Rangers: The two chipmunks' personal hero is framed for stealing a priceless ruby, so they set out to clear his name and in the process meet their future teammates Gadget, Monterey Jack, and Zipper.