When investigating a mystery or a crime, a detective has to go through a lot of steps. The detective must investigate the crime scene to figure out what happened and how it was done, and suspects are identified based on why they want to do this.
Sometimes, the suspect's motive is enough to incriminate him, even if no concrete evidence is presented or it doesn't add up. Quite possibly, an Amateur Sleuth
might have gone on a wild guessing spree and thought it made sense, but had only jumped to conclusions and ended up making baseless accusations. The sleuth's conclusions may have not necessarily been led by Insane Troll Logic
, but he forgot the big detail: You need actual concrete clues and other proof before going out and pointing fingers. In fiction, this is not always the case, and one can bypass all methods of proving who the perpetrator was if a given suspect's motive is reason enough.
Often this leads to trouble when the suspect is innocent and protests that his motive isn't proof. A repeat offender may state that it's Not Me This Time
. May lead to a Clear My Name
. Sometimes a prosecutor knows the suspect is innocent but will use this fallacy to his advantage to frame the suspect. The simple (but not easy) solution to actually bring evidence to light
, quite possibly to realize that the prosecutor's accusations were wrong.
Expect this trope to come out a lot as a Red Herring Twist
in Police Procedural
if there was an Asshole Victim
. If the victim was really unpopular or even a Complete Monster
, this trope could evolve into Everybody Did It
, because Everyone Is a Suspect
In a real legal situation, motive is one of the least important factors regarding prosecution of a guilty party. It's not required that the reason the defendant had committed a crime is known, only if he acted with intent, or knowing what the defendant would have tried to achieve by committing the crime. In fiction, motive is the factor that makes a good cohesive story, which is why this trope is able to persist.
Compare Not Proven
, where a lack of evidence allows a guilty party to go free; Conviction by Contradiction
, when a flaw in the alibi implicates the suspect, and Conviction by Counterfactual Clue
, when the evidence proving guilt is totally wrong in the first place.
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- 12 Angry Men uses this trope as one of the main thrusts behind the drive to convict the defendant. The defendant had yelled "I'LL KILL YOU!" at the victim shortly before the victim had died, and this was taken as "evidence". Juror #3, the one most adamant for a conviction, argued that no one says something like that unless they truly mean it, and during the course of the film, Juror #8 gets #3 so angry that he lunges at #8, screaming "I'll kill him! I'LL KILL HIM!" before #8, remaining calm and cool, throws this line of reasoning right back in his face: "You don't really mean you'll kill me, do you?"
- The Fugitive: The fact that Richard Kimble would have gained something from killing his wife (namely, money-even if he was already rich from being one of the best surgeons in Chicago) is one of the many reasons why the Chicago Police Department arrest him and don't give a second thought to continue the investigation. Needless to say, Sam Gerard points out the stupidity of this the first chance he gets. And turns out, she *did* died for money-just not hers. And there's the fact that the "one-armed man" was an ex-Chicago Policeman...
- In The Shawshank Redemption, the protagonist landed himself in jail for being suspected of the murder of his wife simply because he told her that he would see her in hell before he would see her in Reno. He also got sentenced because his shock at the events going on (and thus lack of experession) had the judge and jury believe he was a "stone-cold killer".
- Defied in Hoodwinked. Red Puckett tells her side of the story. In her story, she thinks the Wolf is up to something bad involving a rash of recipe thefts because he's following her around, asking her personal questions, and she finds that creepy. Then Flippers tells Red they don't arrest people for being creepy. At the same time, the Wolf believes that Red and her Granny were behind the recipe thefts because Granny owns the biggest snack-making company in the forest and therefore had a reason to steal recipes, so he is following Red to investigate. Both of them are innocent regarding the thefts and are subsequently released after their alibis are confirmed so that Flippers can identify the real culprit.
- Jack Blank has an enemy in the Well-Intentioned Extremist Jonas Smart. Ever since the first invasion of the Rüstov, Smart had sworn to protect the people of the Imagine Nation by implementing a lot of brutal practices, including Sinister Surveillance of the population and perpetuating Fantastic Racism against Mechas, since The Great Collaborator, the one who betrayed the Imagine Nation by opening it up to the Rüstov, was a Mecha named Silico. Jack and his new friend Jazen, also a Mecha, come to the conclusion that Smart had orchestrated the whole Great Collaborator thing and pinned it on Silico to gain emergency wartime powers and keep them secure. When they bring this up to Smart, he's downright disgusted that they believe that of him because he would never even think of siding with the Rustov, and he is quick to point out that they have absolutely no proof supporting their accusations. In short, Jack and Jazen were dead wrong.
- Exploited during the Summation Gathering in Agatha Christie's A Murder Is Announced when Inspector Craddock accuses Edmund of committing the murder, solely on the basis that he supposedly was in a position to inherit. Both of them are faking the scene, as a ruse to trap the true killer.
- This trope is the basis of Tyrion's trial in A Storm of Swords. Many witnesses claimed they heard him threaten Cersei and Joffrey, and that convinces the entire realm that he was guilty of murder. Though Tyrion had little love for his nephew, and was harsh toward him, he is completely innocent.
- Psych more or less runs on this trope. The main character is usually hired by the police because of his ability to piece together things when there's little physical evidence. Most characters assume/are lead to believe its psychic powers. He'll get his suspect, rattle off his list of mostly, if not entirely, circumstantial evidence and usually get a confession out out of the perp. Lampshaded at least once when the police protest they'll actually need more than Shawn's "psychic" hunches to move forward in a case.
- Motive inverts this trope since the detectives usually don't discover the motive for the crime till the end of the episode and by that time they have a fair bit of evidence to convict the perpetrator. The show's gimmick is that we know from the start who the killer is but the reasons for the crime are hidden till the very end.
- This has been applied so many times on the CSI Crime Scene Investigation and the Law & Order franchises (as mentioned above, usually as a Red Herring Twist) that it would be easier to number the times it wasn't used. The suspects flying into a rage or shutting up (usually because a lawyer tells them to) when the motive is brought up (and in typical fashion of these shows, the interrogator is being rather cynical and smart-mouthed about it) doesn't helps them in any way. And sometimes, even if innocent, by the time the investigators have conclusive evidence the damage has been done.
- In the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode "Rules of Engagement" Worf undergoes a hearing on whether he'll be extradited to the Klingon Empire for blowing up one of their transports after it decloaked in front of the Defiant during a firefight. Under Federation law this is an open-and-shut case, and Worf is clearly innocent of murder. Under Klingon law, the motive of the killer is what is important (as in, did you kill out of duty or bloodlust?), and their lawyer somehow convinces the Starfleet admiral in charge of the proceeding to let him go ahead with that line of questioning.
- One episode of Rugrats has Suzie blame Angelica for stealing her brand-new tricycle. Angelica was completely innocent — Suzie's trike was under her porch, Angelica's trike was her own and Angelica's red hands (which Suzie thought was from opening her garage's painted doors) were actually from her finger painting an apology letter.
- Star Wars: The Clone Wars:
- An earlier episode in the first season involved one clone attempting to frame another for being a traitor. The framed clone was blamed because he looted the fingers of destroyed battle droids from the battlefield and strung them together to make little bracelets, which was explicitly forbidden. The real traitor was found out immediately after he blamed the other because because he knew that the Jedi were off the base, and no one told him that.
- Ahsoka Tano is accused this way in the final arc of the fifth season. Ahsoka starts out investigating a crime involving sabotage at the Jedi Temple and starts interrogating potential suspects. Ahsoka is accused of committing the crimes herself even though the evidence is dodgy: while interrogating a witness, the record shows her Force choking the witness when she was only scrambling to help the woman being Force-choked remotely; the audio was suspiciously cut off. Also, Ahsoka is reinforced as guilty when she is found in possession of the same bombs used in the sabotage, when she was actually going to search the warehouse for clues to their actual owner. She quickly grows disillusioned as she protests that she's being framed and her prosecutors are too ready to convict her just for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
- The Legend of Korra
- Councilman Tarrlok uses the logic that "the terrorist Equalists are angry non-benders, therefore all these non-benders are Equalists". The crowd he refers to is made up of angry non-benders, but clearly aren't terrorists and non-violently protest Tarrlok's false accusation as unfair. Tarrlok uses their protests to reinforce this trope on them.
- Unalaq accuses his brother Tonraq of conspiring to assassinate him. The judge states that there was a meeting where plans of a civil war was discussed, the meeting took place at Tonraq's home, and Tonraq is chief, and therefore he must be guilty. However, Korra knows her father is innocent because she was a direct witness to the event and Tonraq was not only absent from the assassination attempt, but had confessed sincerely to Korra that he had no intention of murdering his brother. Unalaq knew all along that Tonraq was innocent and exploited this trope to have his brother found guilty and taken out of his way.
- Northern Water Tribe members are suspected for bombing the Southern Water Tribe cultural center during a peaceful protest made by Southerners. Mako knows better, witnessing that the perpetrator was a firebender and identifying who he is as well as his affiliation with a bending triad. Other cops on the police force tell Mako to quit because it was clear that the Northerners did it. This poor judgement is portrayed as laziness on their part.
- The Zeta Project. A spine-enhancing backpack was stolen from a disability rehabilitation center. The young suspect was seen at the scene of the crime just before it was stolen, and is believed guilty despite his testimony that he wasn't there, and that because the backpack is missing he is now confined to a wheelchair; the police only believe that his knowledge of the stolen object and motive to take it convicts him. The truth was that Zeta had projected a hologram of the suspect to hide himself while attempting to search for data in the computer of the backpack's inventor and had witnessed the real thief steal the backpack; a witness who saw Zeta but missed the thief believed it was the kid he was disguised as.