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Confess to a Lesser Crime
Agent: Now, before I give you the check, one more question. This place "Moe's" you left just before the accident. This is a business of some kind?
Homer's Brain: Don't tell him you were at a bar! But what else is open at night?
Homer's Brain: Heh heh heh. I would've never thought of that.
Homer Simpson, "Mr Plow."

Your crimes are catching up to you. The cops/your boss/your wife knows that you're hiding something, and they're no longer buying your lies. What are you to do?

Confess, of course, just not to what you really did. Maybe you admit to a piece of what you did, but not the whole thing, maybe you completely make something up. Either way, you hold them off discovering what you're really up to.

There are clear advantages to pretending to come clean. When you admit to wrongdoing, people usually don't assume you're lying. When they think they've caught you, they don't usually keep investigating, and you've got a perfect explanation for why you've been acting strangely and looking guilty.

The disadvantage, of course, is that you're on the hook for whatever you confessed to, so you better be sure it's worth it to keep the greater crime concealed.

May be used by an undercover cop to keep from being exposed, or by a Justified Criminal to avoid punishment.

Different from a Plea Bargain in that the character is trying to keep their crimes concealed, not trying to strike a deal to avoid punishment.

In Real Life, this is one of the most common ways in which criminal trials are resolved. For instance, someone accused of murder may well confess to the crime of manslaughter/culpable homicide, or someone accused of dealing drugs may confess to possession but not to intent to supply. However, it is generally up to the prosecutor if they want to go with this - if they feel that allowing a murderer to confess to manslaughter would not be a just result, then they are within their rights to reject a plea of innocence and fight on. This trope is so common, in fact, that some criminal defense lawyers have said that they dread (rare) genuinely innocent clients - there is only one just result in their trials, whilst most of their clients are at least guilty of something, if not the exact charge on their indictment.

A Subtrope of Infraction Distraction. Contrast False Confession, Taking the Heat, and Embarrassing Cover Up.

Examples:

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     Anime And Manga  

  • In the Ace Attorney manga, the murderer in the second case admits to setting the fire at Wolfe Manor because otherwise, Bobby, the defendant, would go free. Phoenix's defense had hinged on disproving that Bobby would have willingly burned up his spider and spider book collection, so he's at a loss for words until he realizes that just as the arsonist set a timed ignition device, he also set a timed device to kill the victim and create an alibi. Afterward, Phoenix thanks Edgeworth for calling for a recess and bringing the witness to the stand, thus enabling him to find the truth.
  • Jojos Bizarre Adventure: Akira in Part 4 is given three years for grand theft. This is after committing murder and attempting to kill Joseph Joestar. Granted, explaining the murder would require the judge to know what Stands are (they're Invisible to Normals). Akira gladly takes the jail time, because the alternative is Josuke and Okuyasu kicking his ass every day for the rest of his life.

     Film  

  • Spy Game: Nathan Muir spends most of the film using CIA resources to plan an unauthorized operation to rescue his protégé. When the CIA discovers he's been accessing satellite data, Muir admits to misusing agency resources... to research retirement properties.
  • White Heat has Cody Jarrett confess to a hotel robbery in Illinois to escape suspicion of the train robbery at the start of the film. To put things into perspective, the train robbery had four fatalities and involved government payroll.
  • In Breaker Morant, a soldier is accused of murdering a suspected spy, but confesses that, at the time, he'd been in the bed of a married woman. Turns out he had time for both.

     Literature  

  • In one of the novels based on the Paranoia RPG, a villain is reported for concealing a dangerous mutant power, but saw it coming and registered a different mutant power (chronic runny nose) first. The Computer bought it, and thus disbelieves the report because mutants with multiple powers are unheard of.
  • In Robert A. Heinlein's If This Goes On..., Lyle is advised to pretend to commit a lesser offense to help cover up his involvement in La Résistance. He's further told that faithfully adhering to all of the regime's many laws is unusual enough to get the regime's attention, so he should "never try to pretend lily-white innocence". Lyle leaves evidence of gambling, gets "caught" and lectured on it, and then is let go.
  • Please Don't Tell My Parents I'm A Supervillain: Penny decides to tell her parents she is sneaking out to go on a date when in fact she is sneaking out to commit crimes in her secret identity as a supervillain.

     Live Action TV  

  • Breaking Bad: The seemingly-docile Walt, unbeknownst to his family, is actually in the business of cooking crystal meth with Jesse, a loud and crude drug dealer. In the first season, Skyler confronts Walt about his odd behavior and consorting with a drug dealer. He "confesses" that he's been buying marijuana from Jesse.
    Jesse: "And why'd you go and tell her I was selling you weed?"
    Walt: "Because somehow it seemed preferable to admitting that I cook crystal meth and killed a man."
    • Later on, when Walt has to explain all the money he's been making to his DEA brother-in-law Hank, he (actually his wife Skyler) says he earned it from counting cards.
  • Dexter: When finally confronted about his mysterious disappearances at night by his girlfriend, Dexter is forced to admit that he's an addict (even though he's never even tried drugs) to conceal the fact that he's a serial killer.
    • Technically, he told the truth. She accused him of doing drugs and he admitted to having an addiction. He does have an addiction - just to murder, not drugs.
      • This all came to light when Dexter admitted to knocking out her ex and injecting him with heroin in order to protect her and her kids. She immediately latched onto the fact that he knows how to cook heroin.
  • Frequently used on Lie to Me. Justified in that Cal and his team can always tell if you're lying, or guilty, or ashamed — but not what you're lying, guilty, or ashamed about. This trope may be the only way to throw them off your trail.
  • In one episode of Frasier, the gang travels to Canada in a Winnebago, unaware that Daphne isn't allowed to leave the country without her green card. Frasier and Niles act as one would expect from them, making customs suspicious until Martin "confesses" that his dog Eddie doesn't have a proper pet ID.
  • Frequently used in Burn Notice to maintain cover identities. In one memorable case, a drug dealer finds out Michael has been making phone calls to his would-be girlfriend (who's an undercover cop). The dealer assumes they're sleeping together and plans to kill her, until Michael "confesses" that he was asking around about the man because he wanted to do business with him. Thus confessing a minor violation of privacy to cover up a secret relationship which was itself a lie to cover up her being a cop.
  • Invoked on an episode of CSI: NY. Aiden accuses their suspect of slamming the Victim of the Week's head in his pizza oven (what killed him; they can't prove the suspect was the actual person who did it, since none of the witnesses co-operated), but then bluffs him by also accusing him of then chasing the suspect and stabbing him to death (which they know didn't happen). Thus the suspect assumes his attack didn't kill the suspect and accidentally implicates himself thinking he's invoking this trope.
  • On Rookie Blue the cops bust a marijuana grow house and catch a teenager trying to escape out the back. The guy freely confesses to being in the house to buy weed and even admits that he is a small time weed dealer. The cops assume that he is just a screwed up kid, go easy on him and try to get him some help. Just as he is about to walk out the door, the cops figure out that he is the mastermind behind the operation and he shot and killed his partner shortly before the cops arrived. Because he confessed so quickly and cooperated with the cops, he stopped being a problem for them and they did not take a second look at him until it was almost too late.
  • On Graceland Briggs realizes that his FBI superiors have become suspicious of him so he sets things up so it is discovered that he is a recovering heroin addict. He knows that his bosses will be reluctant to act on this since it could prove to be extremely embarrassing to the FBI and in the meantime he has the time to proceed with his extremely illegal plan to set up a Mob War that will force a notorious cartel assassin into the open.
  • On one episode of Bones, they've got the suspect, but he isn't talking. Until Sweet figures out that he also committed the rape they uncovered during their murder investigation. Booth tells Sweet that even if the suspect were to confess right then and there, they wouldn't be able to charge him with both crimes. So the perp, seeing his way out admits to the rape, and is promptly told he just confessed to murder. When the perp calls them out on lying, it's pointed out to him that the FBI can only charge him with the murder, the rape falls to a different juristiction.
    Booth: "DC Police will charge you for that."
  • In the premiere of Turn, Abe confesses to the British authorities that he has been involved in some low level smuggling (trading cabbages for cloth) during the few days that he was absent from his farm. While smuggling is a fairly serious crime, Abe's family connections will protect him from any real punishment. This is a ploy to hide the real reason why he was away for so long: he was intercepted by soldiers from the rebel Continental Army and an old friend of his tried to recruit him to spy on the British. In a twist, Abe's father does not believe the story but instead assumes that Abe is using this trope to hide his involvement in the murder of a British officer.
  • A memorable incident in Castle where a suspect alibis out on account of he was having sex with the victim's wife at the time.
  • Invoked on Benson. One episode has a businessman from out of state (whose father is an old friend of the Governor's) try to negotiate a deal with the state. He goes out on a date with Denise and tries to have his way with her. Since he has good lawyers (he's done this before and always gotten off), the staff decides to pretend Denise was murdered and try casting suspicion on the businessman. (The production is so over the top, words will not do it justice.) It works and he confesses to attempting to rape Denise, but when he fails to repent, his father fires him.

     Music  

  • Inverted in the song Long Black Veil. The narrator is executed for a murder he didn't commit, because he refused to say where he was during the crime. He'd been in the arms of his best friend's wife.
  • Similarly inverted in Over The Hills And Far Away; the man is convicted of armed robbery because his pistol was found at the crime scene and he had no alibi, because he'd been sleeping with his best friend's wife at the time.

     Video Games  

  • This happens a lot in Ace Attorney, mainly due to the fact that every case involves murder revolving around other events and crimes.
    • In Trials and Tribulations, you manage to save your defendant from a conviction for theft on the first day of his trial, by pointing out that the supposed Ace Detective Luke Atmey actually did it. The suspect crazily admits that yes, he did it! Victory, right? Wrong. Your defendant is promptly accused of killing someone, and you have to prove him innocent of that crime despite the fact that you just proved he doesn't have an alibi for it. Turns out Luke Atmey faked the theft he confessed to on the first day, then committed the murder, confident that he could confess to the theft and therefore have an alibi for the murder.
    • In Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney, the true killer of case 2 admits to trespassing, burglary and property damage when they say they broke into the murder victim's office too try and steal a medical chart. By that time she had already admitted she only married a mob boss's son for his money, and that the chart she was trying to get proved she knew said boss's son's life was in major danger, thus she was trying to protect her life. She also later in the case admits that she threatened someone with a gun. She does all this because if she did not admit to any of these smaller crimes, then it would mean she was guilty of a much bigger crime: murder.
    • In the second case of the first Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney game, the murderer, who claims to have witnessed the murder through a window, trips up and reveals details he shouldn't have been able to see through a window. When called on this, he makes up a story about planting surveillance devices in the murder scene in order to spy on the victim. Although incidentally, said murderer was spying on the victim with a wiretap, however in reality it was his employee who had actually been to the offices to place the wiretap on the phone. He makes up that he was the one who placed it in order to justify why he knew details about the scene of the murder, aka the offices, that he shouldn't have known unless he had been to said offices before.
    • In the fourth game, when Phoenix has proven that a witness , Valant tampered with the crime scene and tried to throw off the time of death, he admits to everything he did, yet continues to deny that he killed anyone. For good reason. He didn't.
    • In the same case, Vera is proven to have been illegally making forgeries (granted, without knowing it was breaking the law) and she even confesses as such when she is accused of murdering her own father.
    • The real murderer in case 5 of game one, Chief Gant, confesses to having forged and withheld evidence, and tampering with the crime scene all to blackmail the sister of the apparent person who took the victim's life in the SL-9 Incident when he comes under fire for the fact that he had withheld that he was the first to find the body. He unknowingly confessed to the murder in a second-hand way itself by doing this.
    • In the third case of Dual Destinies, the true killer, Aristotle Means, tries to claim to have helped Juniper Woods cover up her crime.


Confession CamConfession TropesDeathbed Confession
Bluffing the MurdererPerp SweatingDon't Answer That
The ConCrime and Punishment TropesCondemned Contestant

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