This trope covers when an innocent person goes through the justice system, but for whatever reason is found guilty. The reasons can often include corruption in the system, or misleading circumstantial evidence. In Real Life, it can include bad eyewitness evidence; in fiction, it's more likely to be a false witness or a lying eyewitness. In both, it is not uncommon to see overzealous prosecutors who may focus more on their record of successful convictions than guilt or innocence.
This can be the premise of a story, or it can be a Downer Ending if it overlaps with Acquitted Too Late.
The inverse — an Obviously Evil and guilty person going free — is also often seen as a miscarriage of justice; but that is covered by other tropes such as Karma Houdini. Also, has nothing to do with a pregnant woman having a miscarriage due to bad karma.
See also Kangaroo Court, which may relate to this.
open/close all folders
Anime and Manga
In the Zanpakuto filler arc in Bleach, this happened to Kouga, the owner of Muramasa.
A twist occurs in Fullmetal Alchemist, when Lt. Maria Ross is accused of murdering Lt. Col. Hughes. She's not allowed to present the evidence that proves her innocence because it involves the testimony of her parents, whom she was visiting at the time of the murder, and family members aren't allowed to testify. Her partner, Sgt. Brosh, is also not allowed to speak on her behalf. She's confident that justice will still carry the day, though...until she's informed that it's been reported in the newspaper that she was convicted while she's still awaiting trial.
In JoJo's Bizarre Adventure, Jolyne Cujoh winds up in the Green Dolphin prison because of this. Her boyfriend commits a hit-and-run, which she agrees to keep quiet about; he then reports the car stolen and bribes Jolyne's lawyer to provide false information about the terms of her plea bargain (she thought she'd get less than five years after a grace period, and ended up with fifteen). She wasn't even aware that the victim was dead until her sentencing. It turns out to be part of a larger frame-up by the Big Bad to get at her father, although neither her boyfriend or the lawyer were directly involved with the ones behind it.
The Life Of Emile Zola actually isn't strictly about the life of Emile Zola, but rather about one of the most notorious Real Life examples of this trope—the Dreyfus Affair—and Emile Zola's campaign on behalf of the unjustly imprisoned Alfred Dreyfus.
Marv from Sin City is put on death row and ultimately executed for murdering all the women Kevin and Cardinal Roark killed and ate. Though, to be fair, the list of victims also included all the people that Marv did kill, including the two villains in question.
John Hartigan from "That Yellow Bastard" is wrongly imprisoned for eight years on false charges of raping Nancy Callahan, the 11-year-old girl who he saved from pedophile rapist and Serial Killer Junior Roark, whose father is a powerful and corrupt U.S. Senator.
Both cases were due to extreme corruption, forged evidence and confessions acquired by threats - Marv confessed after his mother's life was threatened, and Hartigan when he thought that Nancy's life was in danger, and he was able to get out on parole if he did.
In Double Jeopardy, Ashley Judd's character is wrongly convicted of murdering her husband and spends several years in prison.
The Shawshank Redemption: The driving force of the plot is that Andy Dufresne is wrongly convicted of the murder of his wife and her lover in the misleading circumstantial evidence variant. It then becomes much worse when exculpatory evidence emerges, and is destroyed by corrupt officials, because Andy has been acting as the warden's accountant during his prison time and now knows too much about his shady finances to be allowed to go free. They murder a witness willing to testify that someone else committed the crime.
An Innocent Man (1989) starring Tom Selleck. Selleck's character is framed by Dirty Cops and is jailed.
Dial M for Murder, Margot is tried and found guilty of murder and sentenced to death. But the police are really after her husband, and let her go in the end.
In The Name Of The Father is based on the real story of the Guildford Four and Maguire Seven, who were accused of a pub bombing in London in the 1970's. The movie took some liberties with the story for dramatic purposes, but the facts are still the same: they were threatened and lied to in police custody to scare them into confessing, the trial was held in the same city as the bombing and ensured that the jury would be very willing to convict the Four (all were hippies and drug users), and the police specifically prevented two of the Four's alibi from being shown to ensure a conviction. They were all released about 15 years later, but none of the police officers were found guilty of any crimes and one of the Maguire Seven died in prison.
In Inception, Dom Cobb is on the run for apparently having murdered his wife Mal. It turns out that Mal was insane and convinced that after having spent fifty years in a dreamworld, she was still dreaming and needed to wake up - and the only way to "wake up" is to kill yourself. She tried to make Dom kill himself along with her by deliberately having herself declared sane by multiple psychiatrists, filing a letter stating she was afraid for her life with her attorney, and setting up a hotel room to look like a violent struggle had taken place in it before luring Dom into the room and killing herself. Dom didn't follow through with it, and the setup was convincing enough that he was forced to flee the country.
Harry Potter was quite fond of using this to demonstrate the incompetence or impotence of the Ministry of Magic:
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets - Cornelius Fudge, the Minister of Magic, even told Dumbledore and Hagrid that he was only sending Hagrid to Azkaban because people had to see him doing something in response to attacks on Hogwarts students.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban - Sirius Black was imprisoned without trial in Azkaban, accused of murdering fellow wizard Peter Pettigrew and 12 Muggles. Minister Fudge ignored the witnesses that claimed Pettigrew was alive and had framed Sirius because he believed they were more loyal to Dumbledore than to the Ministry.
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire - Several Death Eaters or suspected Death Eaters were imprisoned after Voldemort's fall, regardless of whether they were truly guilty. It's implied that the head of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement, Barty Crouch, Sr., wanted quick and convincing trials (or sometimes no trial at all) because he was in line for the Minister's job. He even sent his own son to Azkaban, though in that case his son was openly proud of being a Death Eater.
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix - The Ministry puts Harry on trial in order to keep from "inciting panic" over Harry's claim of Voldemort's return, and to weaken Dumbledore's popularity as Fudge sees him as a threat to his position.
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince - The Ministry has admitted that Voldemort has indeed returned, and immediately reverts to how they acted during the first war; with many instances of unjustifiable arrests. This includes the arrest of Stan Shunpike, who gets sent straight to Azkaban.
The Count of Monte Cristo - Edmond Dantes is framed for treason and sent to the Chateau d'If without a trial by the cousin of the woman he loved, Mercedes, who wanted her for himself, with the help of a corrupt prosecutor.
In Kim Newman's "Tomorrow Town", a murder has been committed in a 1970s futurist community. When the investigating detectives get there, they learn that the townspeople have already imprisoned a suspect, who they insist must be the killer, citing that he never really fitted in to the community and that the murder weapon was found in his house. Later that night, one of the townspeople promoting this theory himself tries to kill the detectives, but accidentally manages to kill himself instead. One of the detectives then notes rather dryly that if one of the most enthusiastic proponents of "the first guy did it!" theory later tries to kill the investigating detectives, it's a fairly safe bet that there's an injustice going on.
In the film version, when More figures out what has happened and why, we get this Crowning Moment of (almost perfectly literal) Gallows Humour:
More: Richard, it profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world...But for Wales?
In Kevin J. Anderson's Blindfold, a loading dock worker is falsely accused of murdering his boss. Subverted in that the accusation came not from a trial but from a mind scan by a young Truthsayer, who is implicitly trusted to always be right. When the mistake is realized, the head Truthsayer realizes they can't admit it to the people, as their entire justice system will crumble. Interestingly, the guy who actually ordered the murder is just as shocked as anyone else by the verdict, even though his manipulations with the Veritas drug caused the mistake. In the end, the truth is revealed, causing the Truthsayers to be disbanded and the society to return to a more traditional justice system.
The Sisterhood Series by Fern Michaels: Isabelle Flanders and Alexis Thorne were victimized in this. Both of them were framed by very bad people. Isabelle had her reputation ruined, and she was lucky that she didn't end up in prison. Alexis ended up in prison, and when she got out, she could only apply for a job as a personal shopper. The book Sweet Revenge has Isabelle strike back against bitchy Rosemary Hershey, and the book Lethal Justice has Alexis strike back against conscienceless Arden Gillespie and weepy Roland Sullivan.
The Way The Crow Flies, by Canadian author Ann-Marie Mac Donald is a fictional version of the Stephen Truscott case. A teenage boy is convicted of the murder of a child, based on circumstantial evidence.
Being set in Roman times, Julian has a few. One Deacon dies for asking a shop owner when "the work" will be done during a time period where the shop owner had an imperial cloak.
Too many daytime Soap Operas, telenovelas and other variants to name, to the point where it's no longer funny or interesting — in fact, this trope (along with its inverse) used to be known as "Soap Opera Justice" due to this kind of thing happening in so many trials in these shows.
The telenovelas La madrastra, La Dama de Rosa, and their remakes are specially egregious examples of this trope.
Cold Case has several cases where people are wrongfully imprisoned and spend years in jail before the detectives uncover the truth. (One guy is sadly executed, but the corrupt DA who withheld evidence is fired and disbarred, another is exonerated AFTER the other inmates murder him). In quite a few of these cases the guys got railroaded thanks to prejudice of some kind while the real murderer seemed perfectly respectable (the most prominent being "Frank's Best", "Death Penalty Final Appeal" and "Thrill Kill. The real killer in "Frank's Best" was the victim's son, who had anger issues. In "Thrill Kill" it was the mentally disturbed father of one of the victims. In "Death Penalty Final Appeal" it's the boss of the victim (who's also a rapist). The guys they framed where (respectively) an illegal immigrant, two punks and outcasts who had bullied the victims, and an ex-convict.)
One episode had someone confess to cover for someone else he cared about. The detectives knew this, but didn't have enough evidence to prove it.
The Rockford Files. In the back story of the series, Jim Rockford was wrongly convicted of armed robbery and spent five years in prison before receiving a pardon.
The The A-Team were convicted of "A Crime They Didn't Commit" which was eventually revealed to be a bank robbery in Hanoi, Vietnam. In truth, they had been ordered to do it, but the man who gave them the order was killed and all evidence of his orders destroyed.
In the fifth season premiere, they were cleared that crime when a former Vietnamese colonel testified in their court-martial that their commanding officer sent them to rob a bank in order for them to be captured by the North Vietnamese. Of course, by that time they were being tried for the murder of their commanding officer, and the series ended before that could be resolved.
Crops up occasionally on Law & Order. Usually partially subverted in that the wrongly convicted is either wholly unsympathetic (a white supremacist convicted of child murders that were actually committed by a mentally-ill black man) or turned out be connected after all (a man convicted of killing his wife turned out to have hired the actual killer. He was convicted of murdering the actual killer). At least once, however, prosecutors did accidentally convict an innocent man, and found that their attempts to exonerate him were frustrated by their own successful prosecution which, lacking any intentional impropriety or error, couldn't simply be reversed because they weren't sure the right man was convicted. A judge on appeal even tells them in effect "12 people looked at your evidence and said he was guilty, who am I to disagree?"
Law & Order: Special Victims Unit had an episode where it is revealed that Olivia unintentionally set a man up to be convicted of a crime he did not commit. The man was the prime suspect in a brutal rape and after hours of interrogation Olivia caught him in a I Never Said It Was Poison statement. This and other circumstantial evidence is used to convict the man. Years later she realizes that the man was innocent and that she must have provided him with the incriminating information earlier during the interrogation and forgotten about it. The man is freed but lost years of his life and the real rapist was free to rape many more women in the meantime.
They like this trope (but after 300 episodes, some tropes start recurring). In one episode, Munch gets a confession from a suspect about a rape long ago. But Munch had sent someone to the Big House way back then for the crime! He goes to visit the guy in prison to eat his crow, apologize, and tell him as soon as they can get the real rapist before a judge, he'd be released. But then the real rapist jumps out of a window, and the innocent man will keep rotting in jail. Talk about a Downer Ending!
Invoked by violent robber Kim Trent in series 1, episode 2 of Life On Mars:
"This is an abortion of justice!"
The episode "Riding the Lightning" of Criminal Minds has the team suspect that a woman who was supposedly the accomplice of her serial killer husband and nearing execution is innocent of her son's murder (the only crime which she was actually charged with)...but she doesn't seem very enthusiastic about the possibility of being cleared. It turns out that she is indeed innocent, but she doesn't want to be acquitted, because the only way to achieve that would be revealing that her son is alive and has a new identity. She believes that if that happened, the boy's knowledge of what a monster his biological father was would taint his whole life.
The 2003 adaptation of Sad Cypress (it's an episode, part of a TV series). Only the adaptation, though. In the novel, the innocent person is found innocent, which is much less dramatic.
An innocent man spends 2 years and 8 months in prison in the Psych episode "True Grits".
The episode "Secrets" revolves around an escaped prisoner trying to prove his innocence.
In "Retrial", a sailor had unbeknownst to him hired a transsexual prostitute. When finding out, the sailor changed his mind and the prostitute threatens him with a knife. The sailor defends himself and accidentally stabs the prostitute and runs away in fear and shame. Not long thereafter, another man comes and viciously stabs the prostitute to death. The sailor is convicted for the murder, but only because the military prosecutor, presumably on purpose didnít follow up on a lead from the local DA in order to further his own political ambitions as being "tough on crime".
A subplot in the Person of Interest episode "Identity Crisis" involved an innocent man sent to prison.
Tony sent an innocent man to prison as revealed in the NCIS episode "Bounce".
One episode of Womens Murder Club featured a man who, seven years after being convicted for murder, would be executed for this. The case had a turn of events when the key witness is killed after sending an email admitting to have lied. It turns out the prosecutor was secretly dating the victim and was so sure the defendant was guilty he blackmailed someone to give false testimony. In the end, the innocent was cleared, the murderer was caught and the prosecutor was arrested for tampering with the case. That case also featured Fridge Brilliance. When a DNA test confirmed the witness was killed by the same person who killed the original victim, nobody used that alone to stop the execution. The killer had to be caught first.
Smallville: Several years ago, back when Jonathan Kent's mother was pregnant with him, a man was wrongfully convicted for the murder of Lana Lang's Grandaunt. It was eventually revealed Sheriff Billy Tate, who later became Mayor William Tate, had asked Lachlan Luthor to kill a "drifter" (Jor-El) who was Tate's rival for her affections but Luthor missed and killed her instead. Since Jor-El left no traces of his presence in Smallville, Tate needed another patsy. Clark dressed in clothes Jor-El left behind to pose as the drifter's ghost and scare a confession from Tate.
The Practice: Five years before DNA tests became available, Bobby Donnell defended an accused murderer who was forced by Kenneth Walsh to confess. Because Bobby believed his client to be guilty, the client had to wait ten years after DNA tests became available until an innocence program has the case reopened and the real culprit was revealed to be someone who had previously confessed out of remorse for seeing an innocent man being blamed but neither Bobby nor Walsh did anything about it. Out of remorse for not requesting the DNA test as soon as it became available, Bobby agreed to help his client sue the State.
Boston Legal: Alan Shore went to Texas to prevent the execution of a mentally-retarded individual who was convinced he was guilty and needed to confess to avoid going to hell. Alan failed but got a Moral Victory as the man said he didn't remember doing the killing.
Bones: In his first appearance, convicted murderer Howard Epps convinced the Jeffersonian he was innocent and they tried to find proof of it in time to stop his execution. They found proof he was guilty not only of the murder he was convicted for but also the murder of other people. The execution had to be delayed to investigate the other murders.
"The Nail in the Coffin" revealed The Ghost Killer's first murder resulted in this trope, and the wrongly convicted man in question eventually snapped and went on a Roaring Rampage of Revenge against both her and the corrupt judge who convicted him.
In Bangkok Hilton, Kat is arrested in Bangkok on drug trafficking charges, and despite the efforts of her father to track down her ex-boyfriend and expose him as a smuggler, she is found guilty and sentenced to death by machine gun. Thankfully, she manages to escape the prison before her execution.
The show In Justice revolved around clearing wrongfully convicted people. In episode 8 they fail to save a mentally handicapped man from being executed because the judge feels that they don't have enough proof. It's sort of up in the air, since the episode ended with the detective confronting the real murderer (as well as the fact that the rest of the team knows who the killer actually is and persuaded the guy's wife to retract her alibi, meaning that they could have gathered enough evidence to nail him to a wall off screen.)
The Danganronpa-inspired Doubt Academy struggles with this, due to Monokuma's altered set of rules. Here, unlike the original games, convicting an innocent person doesn't lead to everyone but the murderer getting killed; only the scapegoat is executed, right after Monokuma confirms their innocence. Thus, you can have a double dose of the murderer going unpunished while somebody else dies for their crime.
The third case of Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney: Trials and Tribulations begins with Maggey Byrde being convicted of murder. Not only was she framed, but the murderer actually disguised himself as Phoenix Wright so he could be her lawyer and make sure she lost. Fortunately, this means a mistrial is declared and the real Phoenix can uncover the truth in another trial.
And the fourth case revolves around Terry Fawles, who had already been falsely convicted of murder 5 years ago, and now has to be saved from getting convicted a second time after escaping from prison and allegedly murdering the cop who arrested him in the original case. Sadly, he's manipulated into committing suicide on the stand even as you reveal he's innocent. Your only satisfaction is that, as this is a flashback, you've already seen the conviction of the monster who drove him to it.
A mission in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, when you first enter Markarth, you will witness a murder on the streets (or prevent murder if you are quick enough). The following quest causes you to continue on a CSI-esque Mission to figure out why one man attacked the woman. Once you've found out, the guards pick up on it and blame you for the murders in town, even if you didn't kill a single soul. Because blaming the outsider always works.
Dwarf Fortress has a legal system which can be broken such that a dwarf may be convicted for a crime committed against them. This even has a special reaction modifier for the offended party: "outraged at the bizarre conviction against all reason of the victim of a crime."
In the DuckTales episode "Duckman of Aquatraz," Scrooge McDuck is framed for theft by his rival Flintheart Glomgold and put into prison, where, conveniently, it turns out that his cellmate was also framed by Glomgold.
Happens a number of times in Tiny Toon Adventures. One incident that really sticks out is in the TT version of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, where the role of Goldilocks is played by animal abuser Elmyra. After breaking into the three bears' house, trashing everything, messing with their stuff, followed by causing great pain and abuse to the bears, upon being summoned by the bears alarm, instead of arresting Elmyra, the police mistaken the bears for wild creatures, capture them, and haul them to the zoo!
Although Baby Bear, who wasn't that comfortable living in a modern home, didn't complain about the change.
In an episode of Rocko's Modern Life, Rocko is convicted (by a Joker Jury of insects) for injuring a fly, and sentenced to 30 days as a fly. Later, the fly that Rocko allegedly injured is seen perfectly fine, guzzling soup at a fancy restaurant. At the same restaurant is The Judge, who then comes to Rocko's home to turn him back into a wallaby, apologizing profusely for the Miscarriage of Justice.
For film documentary accounts:
The Thin Blue Line where director Errol Morris made such a convincing case of Randal Adams being framed for murder by the police and the District Attorney that he was exonerated and released.
Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills, where three non-conformist boys, The West Memphis Three were indicted for a horrific triple murder and convicted even though it's obvious that at best, there is not enough evidence, or at worst, they are innocent boys screwed by community prejudice and hysteria. Here, activists worked on getting them exonerated with the help of the producers following up with Paradise Lost 2 and soon, Paradise Lost 3, which drop the ambiguity of the first film and firmly support the boys' innocence.
Recently the boys were released with the understanding that they plead guiltynote Technically what's called an Alford plea, which basically amounts to "I didn't do it but I know I'll be convicted anyway" while still allowed to assert their innocence. Obviously, the fight for a real exoneration will continue.
A certain kind of real life Fridge Horror kicks in when you realize another miscarriage of justice. If we take for granted that the boys were innocent (general consensus is that the evidence shows this, and the state of Arkansas offering the Alford Plea deal to convicted first-degree murderers was taken as tacit acknowledgement that the prosecution messed up and convicted the wrong people) then . . . what happened to the real killer? Presumably he (or she) is still out there somewhere, if not dead.
On their Showtime series Bullshit, Penn and Teller did an episode focusing on the causes and results of such miscarriages of justice.
The "Central Park Jogger" case. On April 19, 1989, and young woman was savagely attacked in New York City's Central Park—beaten, raped, and left for dead. Within days, five young men — known as the Central Park 5 — who had been terrorizing people in the park were arrested. Despite no DNA evidence, no identification by the jogger (she survived, but could not remember the attack), and a time frame that showed that the boys could NOT have assaulted the woman—ironically because they were attacking someone else at the time, all were convicted and sent to prison. A decade later, a man serving time for another crime came forward and confessed that HE, and he alone was the real perpetrator. There was nothing the DA's office could do but overturn the convictions of the others—who had all served their undeserved time. Meanwhile, the statute of limitations had run out, meaning that the man could not be prosecuted for the attack. So, 5 innocent young men spent a decade in prison for something they didn't do, a guilty man remained—and STILL remains unpunished for something he did, and the woman herself, Tricia Meili, will never see proper justice done. A thoroughly gross miscarriage of justice all around.
Mel Ignatow was acquitted on charges of raping and murdering his ex-girlfriend Brenda Schaffer despite eyewitness testimony from an accomplice. Several years later, graphic pictures taken by said accomplice depicting the hours he spent torturing the poor woman surfaced. Unfortunately, thanks to "double jeopardy" laws, he could not be tried again. The most the prosecution could nail him for was perjury.
Canadian David Milgaard was wrongly accused and convicted of murder. He served 22 years before he was released.
George Stinney, a 14-year-old South Carolinian black boy, was falsely convicted of murdering a pair of white girls. He had actually been coerced into confessing when the police officers offered him ice cream if he confessed to the crime. New evidence has surfaced and a lawyer has been trying to get his conviction overturned, but it's an uphill battle, plus it's essentially for the principal of the thing since he was executed only about 86 days or so after the girls' bodies were discovered.