Murder by Inaction

Vegeta: You... green thing... heal me...
Dende: Oh? I'm sorry, I'm having a hard time hearing you over the smell of my people's blood on your hands.
Vegeta: Oh no... Do not be that guy right now!
Dende: Oh, I'm going to be that guy right now.

A convenient way to deal with someone you want dead is to simply not save their life when a situation arises in which their death is inevitable.

Killing is messy. You have to deal with those pesky murder charges, or go to the effort of engineering a convenient "accident" to avert suspicion, or clean up the crime scene to hide your involvement. But as fate would have it, if your foe winds up in a fatal position and you are their only means of survival, all you have to do to kill them... is nothing at all.

In Real Life, this concept is called the duty to rescue. According to The Other Wiki, the failure to offer help for those in need is rarely considered a crime (because of the can of worms that opens when you punish someone for "not doing anything"), but there are some countries where people are obligated by the law to come to the aid of those in life peril. In France for example, abandoning a helpless person can earn you a prison sentence of up to five years. Of course, an exception is made for on-duty emergency workers, law enforcement and military personnel, where failure to act is to violate your duty.

Compare Do with Him as You Will, Make It Look Like an Accident, Suicide, Not Murder, and Throw 'Em to the Wolves. Contrast Accidental Murder. If the victim is murdered actively by a character and another character does not intervene, it's a case of Accomplice by Inaction or Betrayal by Inaction depending on the case. Contrast/Compare Failure-to-Save Murder where someone is held responsible for a death because they tried and failed to prevent it, and Bystander Syndrome when people in general don't help the victim. Is often the Start of Darkness for a character. Most of the time it is not a Moral Event Horizon however unless the perpetrator contributes actively enough into this to be considered indirectly culpable. This is often a favored tactic of the Technical Pacifist.

As a Death Trope, all spoilers will be unmarked ahead. Beware.


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    Anime & Manga 
  • At the very end of Now and Then, Here and There, Abelia watches while King Hamdo's palace is flooded and he drowns. In this case it's half this trope half The Dog Bites Back, since Hamdo certainly had it coming, but Abelia's face makes it clear she's still rather conflicted over it.
  • In Yuureitou, this turns out to be the real way Tetsuo's adoptive mother died: she was tied to the clock tower by a killer after the treasure within, but since she'd abused Tetsuo for his transgender identity as a child (including leaving him to die in the trap-filled labyrinth beneath the tower until he pretended to cry 'like a real girl'), he simply stood and watched. Tetsuo himself makes no attempt to claim it wasn't murder, telling the cops he'd killed her and using it as a reason that Amano shouldn't be his friend.

    Comic Books 
  • Batman: In issue #633, Robin (Stephanie Brown) dies due to torture and Batman later discovers that Dr. Leslie Thompkins deliberately withheld treatment that could've saved her life but chose not to in order to teach the kids of Gotham a lesson about superheroing. After massive backlash this was retconned into Thompkins making Batman think that Stephanie died when she was actually smuggled out of the country. (Then it was retconned even further into Batman and a few other adults in Stephanie's life being aware too, and everyone dancing around the Open Secret for complex psychological and political reasons...)
  • The Batman story Knightfall has Jean-Paul Valley/Azrael do this while assuming Batman's identity. When the villain Abattoir is left dangling above a vat of molten steel, Jean-Paul is torn between fulfilling his duty as an avenging knight and killing him, or rejecting it and saving his life. Instead, he chooses to walk off, leaving Abattoir to eventually fall to his death. When Bruce, having finally recovered from his injuries from fighting Bane, discovers this, he realizes he can't leave Az-Bats walking around with the identity any longer.
  • Marshal Law: At the climax of the "Kingdom of the Blind" storyarc, Law is very much capable of helping the Private Eye up rather than let him fall to his death. Watching from across the room, Law jokingly insists he "can't quite reach" as the Private Eye struggles and eventually falls.
  • In Catwoman, Catwoman once deliberately refused to rescue Black Mask from falling to his death from a penthouse. Since Black Mask had spent the last several issues doing unbelievably horrible things to her friends and relatives and had just tried to torture her to death, this could probably be forgiven. Unfortunately it didn't work.

    Comic Strips 
  • For Better or for Worse: In Michael's book Stone Season, the heroine suffers constant abuse and suffering at the hands of her cruel, controlling husband. In the climax, she goes out to search for him after he spends too long out on a ride, and finds him lying in the snow, injured. She simply turns around and heads home without him, leaving him to die.

    Fan Works 
  • In Son of the Desert Edward debates with himself on letting Scar kill Roy since Edward knows that he wouldn't be blamed for it considering that Scar is a notorious Serial Killer and Edward himself barely escaped being killed. He hates Roy for killing his maternal Ishvalan relatives and had fantasized about killing him. In the end, he can't bring himself to do it and saves Roy's life.
  • Dragon Ball Z Abridged: Following the scene where Krillin has mortally wounded Vegeta (as Vegeta requested), Dende is understandably unwilling to heal him on account of his partaking in the Namekian genocide. He reluctantly does so when Piccolo points out how screwed they are without Vegeta's assistance.

    Films — Animation 
  • In Corpse Bride, Done more or less by most of the characters both and living and dead to Lord Barkis who should know better than drink from a glass of wine the dead brought just because he couldn't resist some Evil Gloating and wanted to have the last word. Nobody could stomach him getting away with his crimes and thus nobody felt the least bit sorry when he got his.
  • The Emperor's New Groove: As Kuzco and Pacha cross a rickety old bridge on their way to the palace, Pacha falls through and ends up tangled up in the ropes. Rather than help him up, Kuzco leaves him there, saying that it's better than imprisoning him in a dungeon as per his original plan. This backfires immediately when he too falls, forcing the two of them to work together to save themselves.
  • Frozen: Attempted by Prince Hans when he first chooses to withhold a potentially life-saving Almost Kiss from Anna, then leaving her to succumb to her frozen heart. You could argue that he also sped up the process by extinguishing flames, but ultimately, it was a choice not to save, rather than to kill. His kiss probably wouldn't have saved her any ways since he didn't love her, but it's clear that the way he almost does it and then turns away is mostly to rub it in.
  • Toy Story 3: Rather than save the toys from being roasted by the incinerator by pressing the emergency stop button to shut off the conveyer belt, Lotso instead decides to abandon the toys even after they risked their lives to save him.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • Batman Begins: Batman uses this as a loophole around his "no killing" rule to dispose of Ra's al Ghul, who's caught on an about-to-crash train.
    Batman: I won't kill you... but I don't have to save you.
  • The Fifth Element: Subverted. Immediately after Zorg gives Cornelius a diatribe about survival of the fittest and the necessity of destruction, he starts choking on a fruit. Cornelius takes some time to point out the irony, but ultimately thumps him on the back to save him.
  • Gladiator: After Maximus disarms Commodus in the arena, Commodus immediately starts demanding one of the surrounding Praetorian Guard to give him a sword. If he hadn't recently and publicly dishonored his own royal guards, they might have.
  • Johnny Belinda, although this example might be just straight-up murder. Locky's fight with Black by the edge of the cliff ends with Black slipping off the cliff, scrambling for a foothold. Locky stands and watches as Black slips off the cliff and falls to his death.
  • Killer Toon: Mi-suk's mother suffers from a horrible facial disfigurement (cause unspecified) that includes among other things a missing eye, ghastly scarring, and holes in her cheek. Mi-suk, sick and tired of being a social outcast because of her mother, writes that she wishes her mother were dead. Mom finds her daughter's journal and hangs herself—and seconds after she kicks away the chair, Mi-suk walks in and finds her mother strangling to death on the rope. Instead of doing anything to help her mother, Mi-suk steps back and watches her die.
  • Tormented: When Vi is hanging from the broken railing of the lighthouse, begging Tom Stewart to save her, he starts to move in, and then decides to just stand idly by and watch her fall to her death. He makes a half-hearted attempt to move in once she's already plummeting.
  • The protagonist of A Place in the Sun refrains from saving the girl he made pregnant when she is drowning because her death would free him up to be with his true love.

  • In Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None, the Rogers were accused of murdering their former employer by withholding her medication for her heart condition, which led to her death when she got a cardiac arrest.
  • In the Dragonlance series this was the final step of Lord Soth's Slowly Slipping Into Evil descent. He had been tricked to believe that his second wife Isolde (who he had first gotten together with while still married to his first) was cheating on him and went to confront her when he should have been going to stop The Cataclysm. While he was doing this said Cataclysm began and caused a chandelier to fall on Isolde and their child. She begged him to save them, but he just stood by, and with her last breath Isolde cursed him. The castle itself was destroyed, but Soth rose as a Death Knight.
  • From Dr. Isaac Asimov's I, Robot collection, "Little Lost Robot": This is a concern of Dr. Susan Calvin. Normally, the First Law of Robotics prevents robots from harming humans or allowing them to come to harm; however, a robot has been built with a modified First Law which only covers the former. Calvin posits a situation where a robot with this modification can commit murder - by dropping a heavy weight above a human, knowing that its quick reflexes will allow it to catch the weight in time to not harm the human; but then having dropped the weight it has the ability to decide not to catch the weight.
  • Night Watch: In Twilight Watch, Anton notices a subtle flaw in Well-Intentioned Extremist Kostya's plan that will make it fail in a manner that will kill Kostya. Anton keeps the information to himself while the plan goes forward.
  • Redwall: Ungatt Trunn dies when, after surviving being thrown into the sea with a broken back, finds himself stranded as the tide comes in. Then his much-abused former seer shows up to gloat, not doing a thing to get him out of the rising water.
  • In Raven In The Foregate, one of Ellis Peters' Brother Cadfael mysteries, it turns out that the victim wasn't murdered (by being hit on the head and thrown in the river) at all. The sole witness simply didn't help him when he slipped on some ice, hit his head on a tree stump, and slid down the riverbank unconscious.
  • How Clyde finally kills Roberta in An American Tragedy — she accidentally falls overboard from their boat, she can't swim, and Clyde simply doesn't save her.
  • In the short story "Sweat" by Zora Neale Hurston, Delia's abusive husband gets bitten by the same snake he used to threaten her with. After some deliberation, and realizing he'd die even if she did go for help, Delia just sits under the chinaberry tree and waits for him to die.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.: In the episode "Nothing Personal", Deathlok threatens to torture Agent Ward to death if Skye won't decrypt the secret files for him. Since Ward has been revealed as a HYDRA mole, Skye resolves to let him die. She can't go through with it.
  • Babylon 5: JMS must like this trope since it appears multiple times in the series.
    • When an explosion leaves Londo and G'Kar stranded in an elevator, G'Kar cheerfully invokes and attempts to follow through with this trope, much to Londo's displeasure. He doesn't mind dying himself, if it means that Londo dies under circumstances that won't trigger Centauri reprisals against other Narns. However, G'Kar winds up as the one displeased when the elevator car is rescued at the end of the episode.
    • Out of jealousy, Lennier's final act on the show was to leave Sheridan behind a locked door, in a room being flooded with toxic gas. Subverted, in that, A.) he has a change of heart and goes back to correct the mistake, and B.) he returns to find others have arrived to save the day, and is forced to go on the run.
  • Breaking Bad: Walt watches Jesse's girlfriend, Jane, choke to death on her own vomit (she'd shot up with heroin). Jane had earlier demanded Walt fork over some drug money and threatened to rat him out. Made worse in that Walt had inadvertently moved Jane on to her back when he tried to wake Jesse up, and thus indirectly caused her death as well as refusing to prevent it.
  • CSI Crime Scene Investigation had an episode where a suicidal man jumped in front of a car and was embedded in the windshield. The driver, wanting to avoid charges for driving drunk, left him to slowly bleed out. The final insult to the driver as he's being charged is that if he'd saved the man's life no charges would have been pressed due to the suicide note.
  • ER: Dr. Greene once found himself alone in an elevator with the abusive father of children that he (Greene) had helped get removed from their father's custody, and the father had gone on a shooting rampage, intending to kill Mark's wife and daughter. The patient went into cardiac arrest, and Mark allowed him to die while setting off the defibrillator to make it seem like he was attempting to save him.
  • Game of Thrones: Halfway through the first season, Viserys barges into a "whore's feast" completely drunk, and threatens to cut out his sister Daenerys's baby from her womb if Khal Drogo doesn't "give him his crown". After Drogo seemingly agrees, with Dany saying that Viserys will have "a golden crown that men shall tremble to behold", he has Viserys seized and melts his gold belt in a pot to "crown" Viserys with. Viserys tries to plead with Dany, but she stands by and says nothing when Drogo returns, says, "A crown for a king!", and "crowns" Viserys by pouring the now-molten gold over his head, killing him.
  • Law & Order: UK: In the episode "Samaritan", based on the original Law & Order episode "Manhood"note , a homophobic policeman is discovered to have essentially killed his (gay) colleague by not getting him any help when he was shot (the courtroom section of the episode is mostly based around proving he was there and deliberately didn't do anything).
  • Luther: The biggest source of blackmail against Luther comes from the opening scene in the pilot, when a child molester nearly falls to his death while fleeing capture. Instead of helping the molester back on his feet, Luther lets the man fall to his death.
  • Medium: In one episode, a young Allison has visions about one of her friends. She sees that, by knocking on his door, she will stop him from killing himself, and many years later he will rape and murder teenage girls. So a few days later, she decides to not interrupt his suicide.
  • Midsomer Murders: There's one where a snobby wine lover is tied to his lawn while the murderer is catapulting wine bottles at him. His wife comes to the window and sees the whole thing (though the murderer remains unidentified). When she sees the bottle miss, she calls out corrections to the murderer. The next morning, the police arrive but she of course didn't see anything.
  • Nashville: Teddy watches as Lamar Wyatt has a heart attack. He begins to step forward to help, then stops, not even calling 911. Lamar dies.
  • Orphan Black: Suspecting Aynsley to be her monitor (erroneously), Alison does nothing to prevent Aynsley from accidentally strangling herself with a scarf and a drain grinder.
  • Person of Interest: At the end of the episode "Reasonable Doubt", John decides the POI and her husband just aren't worth saving, and leaves a gun for the husband to even the odds in allowing them to kill each other.
  • In Korean Drama Who Are You?, Jang Yeon-hee's prospective mother-in-law really, really did not approve of the impending marriage between Yeon-hee and her son Park Woong-joon. So much so that when Yeon-hee goes into an asthma attack after a nasty argumemnt with Mama Park, Mama Park holds onto Yeon-hee's asthma medication and watches her die.
  • On Xena: Warrior Princess, this is how Xena originally killed Callisto; they tumbled down a hill, Callisto landed in quicksand and Xena simply let her sink. She got better, though. Multiple times.
  • On The Walking Dead, several characters end up killed this way by being left to the walkers.
  • On Chicago Fire, Firefighter Cruz, who's brother is in a gang lead by the ruthless Flaco tries to get his brother out of the gang, at first, Flaco seems ok with it, but it ends with Leon being beaten. In a later episode, Flaco is caught in an apartment fire, Cruz finds him, Flaco begs him to save him. But Cruz leaves the room and leaves Flaco to his fate.

  • In Carrie Underwood's "Blown Away" a young girl gets rid of her abusive father by taking refuge in the storm cellar (and locking the door from the inside) while he’s passed out drunk and there’s a tornado headed straight for the house.
  • A popular Urban Legend surrounds the Phil Collins song "In The Air Tonight". The legend usually involves someone watching someone else drown and being unwilling to help along with several other variations. In actuality, the song was about a divorce.

  • In Lillian Hellman's 1939 play The Little Foxes (later made into a 1941 film starring Bette Davis), Horace decides to cut his evil wife Regina out of his will, and tells her so. Shortly thereafter he feels a heart attack coming on and asks Regina for his pills. She does nothing, instead watching as he collapses. He dies a few hours later without changing his will.
  • Little Shop of Horrors: Seymour tries to shoot Orin the Depraved Dentist, but can't bring himself to. Moments later, Orin gets himself high inside a mask full of nitrous oxide (laughing gas), but finds he can't get it off and begs Seymour to help him get it off (while he laughs maniacally.) Seymour just stands by and Orin suffocates.

    Video Games 
  • After the events of Batman: Arkham City, general consensus is that Batman killed the Joker. Granted, Batman was stabbed in the shoulder by the Joker, causing him to drop the only cure to the Joker's sickness, but random chatter in the post-game of City and throughout Batman: Arkham Knight make it clear that nobody sees much of a difference.
    • In Arkham Knight's "Season of Infamy" DLC, it's possible for Batman to do this. The end of the League of Shadows mission sees Batman given the choice between saving a feeble Ra's al Ghul, or letting him die of old age without the Lazarus Pit. It seems throughout the mission that Batman is considering the latter option for the greater good, but is worried it will break his one rule. Alfred even asks Batman beforehand "is not saving someone really the same as taking a life?"
  • Amnesia: Justine: The player character is presented with the option of doing this three times as a Secret Test of Character given to you by the title character, the Ax-Crazy Justine, aka yourself, since Justine is the amnesiac Player Character.
  • Ghost Recon: Future Soldier: The Ghost team deployed in Russia was about to take out the leader of the coup in Moscow when they were ordered by the US government to take him in alive. Ghost Leader is pissed off at this, but doesn't do anything to help the coup leader escape from being killed by an incoming train since he said "our orders were not to touch you."
  • Heavy Rain:
    • Norman Jayden can do this if he fights the Origami Killer in the end. The alternative is to save him and then kill him.
    • Shelby can also do this to Charles Kramer by not giving him his pills while he's having a heart attack.
  • In Ghost Trick, when Sissel speaks to Lynne after she dies and tells her that he saw a video feed of her shooting him, Lynne comments that he could easily get back at her for it by simply leaving her dead. Sissel has no intention of doing that, however.
  • In Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, Huey Emmerich leaves his wife Dr. Strangelove to suffocate in the A.I. Pod she gets sealed into after she tries to stop him from placing their 2 year old son in Sahelanthropus. When she realizes she's never getting out she begs him for a quick death, but he just leaves. When her corpse is found later Huey tries to claim she committed suicide, but at this point his credibility has been shot to hell by his pathological lying so no one believes him.
  • In Until Dawn, this leads to a possible death for Chris. If you earlier chose not to save Ashley in the death traps, or tried to shoot her with the gun, she will refuse to open the door when Chris is being chased by Wendigos, and will watch him die instead.

    Western Animation 
  • Avatar: The Last Airbender:
    • In a flashback showing parts of Roku's life, Sozin leaves Roku to die when the latter accidentally inhales toxic fumes from an erupting volcano.
    • In the season one finale, Zuko considers doing this to Admiral Zhao when the latter is attacked by the (giant, enraged) spirit of the oceans. After a moment's consideration, he holds out a hand to save Zhao, but the admiral refuses to allow his rival to save him, and is swept away to what was presumably his death. It turns out Zhao should have taken Zuko's hand, since he reappears in The Legend of Korra's second book as a wanderer in the Fog of Lost Souls for killing the Moon Spirit, which has driven him to insanity.