But deep in your heart you know the guilt would drive you mad
And the shame would leave a permanent scar
'Cause you start out stealing songs, and then you're robbing liquor stores
And sellin' crack and runnin' over school kids with your car
Commonly seen in crime dramas, especially of the noirish variety, this occurs when a character or characters, having committed one crime, perhaps one not even that serious, must then commit another crime to cover up the first, and so on, leading to an escalating series of crimes set off by what may have originally been just an accident. If the character had just come clean at the beginning, he might have gotten off with a relatively light sentence. After a little while with this trope, he's looking at death row if he gets caught.
A tendency to encourage this is what makes All Crimes Are Equal
a Very Bad Idea. Compare Snowball Lie
, Jumping Off the Slippery Slope
and Unintentionally Notorious Crime
. Contrast Revealing Cover Up
. A major cause of Never One Murder
and Plethora of Mistakes
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Anime and Manga
- In one of The Kindaichi Case Files, "Smoke and Mirrors", the teacher Matoba ends up killing three people, and attempting to kill a fourth, to cover up a misdeed many years ago.
- Steve Ditko's Mr. A stories always revolved around this, the Objectivist moral being that there's no such thing as toeing the line between good and evil.
- Jean Loring did this as part of DC's Identity Crisis storyline in which she set up a murder and an attack in order to cover up her own accidental killing of Sue Dibny.
- Sin City: This happens from time to time, most notably Dwight McCarthy stories since he regularly gets in more and more trouble and technically has to break another law in order to get out of it.
- A recurring plan in Starman is a Corrupt Corporate Executive hiring a Super Villain to go on a crime spree to cover up a single, financially motivated murder.
- Basically the entire plot of Stag, in which the party-goers, having committed two counts of manslaughter in the second degree, spend the rest of the film debating whether to commit first degree murder in order to keep a witness from talking.
- The trope description doubles as a plot synopsis for Very Bad Things.
- A Simple Plan is a rather harrowing example of this plot.
- In the black comedy Big Nothing Simon Pegg's character convinces David Schwimmer's character that nothing could go wrong with their plan to blackmail a local Reverend. Unfortunately no-one is quite what they seem, and soon one thing leads to another...
- Thelma & Louise. What starts as a act of self-defense ends with a multi-state manhunt.
- In Otto Preminger's Where the Sidewalk Ends, a Rabid Cop accidentally beats a suspect to death, and ends up inadvertantly framing an innocent man while trying to throw suspicion off himself.
- The whole film Armored is basically a big example of this trope. The main plot starts off with a plan by a group of six or so armored truck drivers to steal the money they're transporting. The protagonist has more of a conscience than the average felon, but needs money and agrees to go along with it. Things start out alright for them when they take the truck to an abandoned warehouse where they plan to hide the money and then retrieve it after they pretend their truck was attacked. At some point, they decide that they need to blow up the truck in order to hide the evidence, but things still look like they might go off without any major hitches. However: it turns out that a homeless man is living in the warehouse. When the homeless man sees them, the trigger-happy member of the heist team shoots him. When the protagonist suggests calling an ambulance, the team's leader finishes off the homeless man. Then, the protagonist turns on them and sounds an alarm that draws a police officer to the warehouse. The trigger-happy guy shoots the cop, seriously wounding him. Then, in order to force the protagonist to cooperate with them, the crooks kidnap a member of his family. Meanwhile, another member of the team decides he can't handle it anymore and says he wants out, to which the other criminals respond by murdering him. In the end, the gang's leader tries to run over the protagonist with an armored truck.
- In Bad Lieutenant Port Of Call New Orleans a Dirty Cop's life starts to spiral out of control as he has to keep committing new crimes in order to deal with the fallout from his old crimes. And since his old crimes were motivated by massive drug and gambling addictions he hasn't kicked yet, he keeps creating new problems just as soon as it looks like he's solved the old ones.
Live Action TV
- In an episode, a lawyer enjoys a few drinks and hits a pedestrian while driving home. The victim gets trapped in his windshield, but instead of taking him to a hospital or calling the police, the lawyer hides the man in his garage. In the end, it's revealed that the man jumped in front of his car intentionally to commit suicide, and the lawyer would not have been charged with anything had he not let the guy die in his garage.
- Also, the infamous Max from the episode "Loco Motives". It would have worked out much better for him if he had just called the police and told them he accidentally killed his wife instead of what he actually did, which involved killing his neighbor and failing in disposing of his wife's body.
- Well, technically, none of those things were crimes 'cept maybe dumping the body and cleaning the crime scene up, and perhaps wasting police time, but thats, by comparison, pretty trivial. Both deaths were accidents, and its implied they believe him. So he might actually have been let off anyway.
- In another one there was a taxi driver who ran over a pickpocket who refused to pay her fare and ran off with his wallet, but he only did it because another driver bumped into him on purpose, causing his car to hit her in the head when she tripped. He wouldn't have gone to jail but the other driver convinced him that they both would, so they fled the scene and lied about the whole thing, and tampered with evidence, all of which were crimes. Since he's an immigrant, the first driver is likely to be deported, the very thing he was trying to avoid in the first place.
- In the series' pilot episode, a thief returns to the house he'd robbed, presumably to clean up some clue to his identity, and winds up murdering Holly Gribbs, who is processing the scene.
- On CSI: New York, Mac spends some time being stalked by a criminal he put away while he was still a rookie, who has some unspecified grudge against him and his old mentor/first partner. It turns out that Mac's mentor stole some money the crook was caught with and stashed it at the scene. When he went to pick it up, the crook's girlfriend caught him so he killed her.
- In The Shield, the Strike Team starts out making a few deals with some gangs to leave them alone while going after their competitors, and ends up killing fellow cops to cover up their corruption.
- Played with, or perhaps subverted in Veronica Mars season one, in which the Kanes commit various counts of conspiracy (mislabeled in the show as obstruction of justice) in order to conceal that Duncan did not kill Lilly. Well, technically, they thought he killed her and that's why they covered it up. In their defense, they did find him in a position where he was covered in her blood.
- Prison Break contains several cases of this. Charles Westmoreland even tells Michael at one point that there's no such thing as an ex-con, which Michael repeats sometime in season two when he realizes how many crimes and deaths he's been directly and indirectly involved in, since he decided to break Lincoln out of prison. Sucre, C-Note and Mahone are also arguable examples of this, as their backstory gradually reveals.
- Cold Case
- An early episode had a guy shoot a man to death, and in attempt to cover it up, he set a fire... which killed at least twenty-two others.
- In another episode the Big Bad doesn't even kill the victim — he just gets rid of the body to protect the idiot that killed her almost by accident. However, as the investigation goes on, he kills another man to keep the secret and when that also fails, he attempts to kill the detective in charge of the investigation.
- Common in Monk and Psych, particularly in Monk where many of the murders are relatively innocent people who were in the wrong-place at the wrong-time. The mystery is finding out why they were murdered in the first place, and it often comes down to the the murder being used to cover up some other crime, which is only discovered through the murder investigation. If that's not the case, someone else is likely to be murdered in an attempt to cover up evidence from the first murder.
- A typical use of this, for example, occurs in "Mr. Monk and the Very Very Old Man," in which a politician accidentally killed an innocent teenager in a drunken hit and run years before the plot happened. Unable to resist confessing somehow, he wrote a letter detailing his guilt and put it in a time capsule, which was supposed to be opened again sooner than expected if the world's oldest man were to live five more years. The politician was eventually forced to kill the man in order to stop the time capsule from being opened, during which he also had to kill a security guard. He goes down for triple homicide in an attempt to cover up his single hit and run.
- A favored trope of Law & Order - especially when the defendant has a rich (or mobbed-up) family to bribe, perjure and intimidate his way to an acquittal.
- In Person of Interest this is usually what gets Finch and Reese involved. The machine is unable to predict impulse crimes but once a crime is committed it can predict that the cover up will involve murders. In the pilot when DirtyCops kill some drug dealers the cover up escalates to the attempted murder of a teenage witness and then the attempted murder of the prosecutor looking into the matter. The criminals were willing to escalate things even further since the prosecutor had his young son with him when they tried to kill him and they did not want any witnesses.
- In Luther, all DCI Ian Reed needed was some money... but it just snowballed from there...
- This is a running theme in Breaking Bad. Walt and Jesse want to make and sell meth but to do so they need to make deals with violent and unstable criminals who do not trust them. Sooner or later the other criminals turn on them and Walt and Jesse have to kill them to protect themselves. As they move further up the criminal food chain, they are forced to take more drastic measures and become more ruthless.
- Since it's explicitly stated the series is an attempt to turn Walt from Mr. Chips into Scarface, it's pretty much a given that this trope is going to come into play.
- In an episode of NYPD Blue a man murders his neighbor to keep the neighbor from testifying against him about a much lesser crime. The cops bust him as he's butchering the body in order to dispose of it.
- Older Than Steam: Macbeth is famous for this one.
- Technically Macbeth is an inversion: Macbeth's first crime, murdering the king, is the worst. His subsequent crimes, moreover, are committed not to cover up the first but to hold onto the throne.
- Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney
- The bonus case in the first game has this as the motive for Joe Darke in the backstory - a seemingly normal man who accidentally killed a cyclist in a car accident, and then proceeded to go on a killing spree in an attempt to cover up this initial accident.
- The Big Bad of Trials and Tribulations Dahlia Hawthorne, who killed their sister to keep her from talking about a fake kidnapping they had staged years ago to steal a jewel from their family. Further details are are a classic example but a big spoiler .
- Girl Genius: Lampshaded and averted in this strip.
- Played reasonably straight with Dr. Merlot here. After several cryptographers on loan from Baron Wulfenbach discovered the true identity of the late Dr. Beetle's assistant Merlot tried to hide his letting the last of the Heterodynes slip through his fingers by burning the notes, whatever secret labs of Dr.Beetle he could find, the hall of records, and the cryptographers. Clearly, his sentence to Castle Heterodyne was all "Miss Clay's" fault.
- Parodied in the first Futurama "Tales of Interest" episode, in which a What If? machine shows what it would be like if Leela (normally the Straight Man) was more impulsive. She ends up killing The Professor for his inheritance and then slowly working her way through the cast as they catch on, except for Fry, whom she seduces. Then
kills gets kinky.