"The judge said, 'Son, what's your alibi? If you were somewhere else, then you don't have to die.'"—"Long Black Veil"
Often, when someone is suspected of a crime, they can prove they were somewhere else at the time, or otherwise physically incapable of committing the crime. This is called an "alibi." It's a common plot element in the mystery and crime genres, but sometimes pops up elsewhere.
Note, however that the term "alibi" is sometimes misused. First an alibi is rebuttable evidence that the person suspected of a crime requiring them to be where the crime took place was not there. It is rebuttable
which is a technical term meaning the prosecution can show it's not valid, is wrong or is faked. Second, unless the evidence is showing you were someplace else than where the crime was committed, and
the crime requires you to be there during it's commission, the evidence is not
an alibi. Catherine Trammel's books describing how she'd murder people in Basic Instinct
an alibi; despite the (reasonable) argument that she'd have to be really stupid to murder someone in exactly the way her books describe, they do not prove that she was somewhere else when the murders took place.
For some evidence to be an alibi, it must either show you could not have committed the crime and/or show that you were no where near where the crime took place (if the crime requires you to be there at the time). A witness stating you were in Chicago at the time someone was stabbed in Los Angeles is a reasonable alibi. A traffic ticket you signed while you were in Chicago when the murder happened is a great alibi. But again, it's rebuttable if the prosecution can show there is enough time for you to commit the crime and still get to Chicago, or someone's lying.
An alibi showing you're somewhere else doesn't help if you don't have to be at the scene of the crime. If you built and/or mailed someone a bomb (knowing it was one) and it blew up, killing them, it doesn't matter what evidence you have to prove incontrovertibly that you weren't there when the bomb went off, no alibi is going to be available, because you don't have to be there to commit the crime, thus proving you weren't there when the bomb went off does nothing to prove that you didn't make the bomb and that you didn't mail it.
The only way that an alibi would work in the above example is if it can show it was impossible for you to construct a bomb and mail it or have it mailed, and that you could not have mailed a bomb that someone else made. Any other evidence is not
A common use in fiction is for a Wrongly Accused
person to have an alibi, but the one person who could prove it is missing, or for some reason denying the truth. Another is for the alibi to be inherently unverifiable - being at home in bed is a perfectly reasonable and often true explanation of one's whereabouts at the time of a crime committed in the middle of the night, but it's hard to prove, especially if the suspect lives alone - which can cause the authorities to assume that the suspect just made it up and was actually out committing the crime.
Alternately, a suspect may have a false alibi, and it's up to the protagonist detective/police to break the alibi. Genre Savvy
readers and viewers may immediately suspect the one person in a mystery whose alibi is too
airtight. Alibi accounts for the "opportunity" aspect of a crime
. A character who is found to have the remaining two (means and motive) will usually have his alibi scrutinized by the investigators.
Another use of the alibi in fiction is for the suspect's alibi to be that they were committing another crime at the time (traditionally adultery) and thus being unusable
. Conversely, especially in short fiction from the viewpoint of the perpetrator, the ironclad false alibi they set up makes them the number one suspect in a completely different crime.
It's worth noting that in many jurisdictions, the use of an alibi defense requires the defense to notify the prosecution of the alibi ahead of the trial so that the evidence can be investigated before the trial begins. (This can save the time and expense of a wrongful trial.)
Contrast Conveniently Unverifiable Cover Story
, in which the point is to make it impossible to check whether a person was where they claim to have been; and Leave No Witnesses
, which tries to prevent anyone from being able to say they saw you at the scene of the crime.
Anime and Manga
- Lupin III:
- Lupin III (Green Jacket), in the pilot episode, had Lupin racing in a Formula 1 car, with Inspector Zenigata chasing behind him. While he's just out of sight, he switches places with Jigen, who is driving an identical car. When the nearby hotel explodes and Zenigata attempts to blame Lupin, Lupin points out that Zenigata is his alibi: proof that Lupin couldn't be responsible for the crime.
- Lupin III (Red Jacket) second episode, "Guns, Bun, and Fun in the Sun", has Lupin (along with Jigen and Goemon) arrested for drunk driving. They set up a projector to show the three still in jail as they escape and pull off the episode's heist. It would've worked, except Inspector Zenigata was too suspicious and checked out their cell personally.
- In the Ace Attorney manga's Turnabout Gallows case, the entire crux of the case revolves around the fact that everyone but the defendant has a completely impenetrable rock solid alibi: At the exact time of the victim's instantaneous death, everyone who could have possibly committed the murder besides the defendant was right there in front of Phoenix. This seemingly cast iron fact is about to get Phoenix's client a guilty verdict. That's when Phoenix quite literally turns the entire case upside down to work out and prove how the real killer managed to cause the victim's death without actually being anywhere near him.
- One EC Comics story had a man meet a stranger on a deserted road miles away from the location of the crime he was later accused of. Because of the heinousness of the crime, the trial was brought quickly, and the execution scheduled within two months. All the time, the accused man's pleas for the witness to step forward went unmet. Finally, we learn who the alibi witness was. It was the state executioner, who had an extended leave of absence after the stress of his job caused him to have a nervous breakdown, and had not seen a newspaper or listened to the news in months. Let's hope he never found out the truth...
- Identity Crisis: Many readers figured out who the killer was in the first issue, because even though that person wasn't listed as a suspect at all, the story went out of its way to provide them an alibi.
- In the Tom Selleck film Her Alibi Selleck plays a man who goes along with a woman pretending to be her alibi proving she couldn't have committed the murder she has been accused of. He starts having doubts after a while.
- The Plan in Vabank depended on giving Kramer a really good alibi (with juicy little details, like Natalie's supposed neighbour greeting him as he leaves "her" apartament) - only to mop everything up later and pretend it never happened.
- Augie from Once Upon A Crime tells the police detective he was with his wife in their hotel room when the murder took place. The detective then tells him that a witness saw a man leave his room and climb down the fire escape. Augie claims that the man was himself and the detective asks him to recreate this feat. So, he does. Then the detective asks him what he thinks the man did and has him recreate those feats as well. After performing those feats, Augie asks if that matches the witness' account. The detective confirms that it did and also puts him at the scene of the crime.
- In Another Thin Man Lois is with Nick and Nora when the Colonel's shot goes off, so she is believed to be innocent. It is revealed that with her hoodlum boyfriend Phil's help she set up an elaborate timing mechanism in which she first killed her father, and then rigged the gun to go off five minutes later, after she'd left.
- The Mad Miss Manton: Melsa Manton and her gal pals try to find out if Edward Norris and his friend Frances’ alibi of being at a hockey game, and therefore unable to commit the murders, is true. They find out that he couldn’t have killed old man Lane because that would’ve meant going across town and back in the small amount of ten minutes.
- In the Alan Handley novel, Kiss Your Elbow, actor protagonist Tim Briscoe finds his agent murdered. One of the most obvious suspects is the actress who had the appointment immediately before his. He drops the suspicion, however, when it turns out she missed the appointment because she drunkenly trapped herself in the bathroom for the last four hours. This turns out to have been true, a good thing for Tim because he's not a good detective.
- In Night Watch, at the time that Lord Winder is scheduled to die, one conspirator assures another that Snapcase, an obvious suspect, is "dining quietly but visibly in impeccable company on the other side of town".
- Larry Niven's The Alibi Machine: What happens to police investigations when quick and easy teleportation makes it possible to hop across the country and back in the same time it takes to step out to use the washroom? Suddenly there's no such thing as an alibi anymore.
- In Last Sacrifice, when Rose is framed for regicide, Adrian provides her with an alibi as they spend the night of the murder together. His mother Daniella Ivashkov then goes to provide him with his own alibi. Bribing a janitor to testify that Adrian arrived in Rose's apartment later than he actually did. So they could not have done the deed together. Problem was that the second alibi was not needed, only complicating things more.
- One of the Urth mysteries by Isaac Asimov was centered around breaking an alibi that was already unverifiable. The suspect had a well-known habit of going into total seclusion for a month every year, so the lack of witnesses and evidence as to his whereabouts that month wouldn't be considered suspicious by the jury, they'd be considered expected. Urth is called in to prove that the suspect had, instead of being in seclusion on his estate, actually been on the moon.
- In the Decoy episode "Fiesta at Midnight", the accused murderer's alibi is a girl named Maria he tried to hit on at midnight, who told him she was getting married on Sunday. But there are no records of any Maria having a wedding on that date. It doesn't help that the one other person who knows that Maria exists is lying to protect the real killer. The police finally realize that Maria meant "married to God", that is, becoming a nun. Happy ending ensues.
- The Court of Last Resort episode "The John Smith Case", has the alibi witness located after 22 years. He was a hobo who'd hopped the rails later that night and never knew Smith had been arrested. But he remembers the details clearly, because it had been his birthday, and Smith had spent his last dollar buying him food.
- NCIS: One episode uses "Alibi" as a title. A Marine is killed in a hit and run. The vehicle owner is suspected. Said owner uses attorney/client privilege to secure his alibi. The attorney checks out the alibi and confirms it. The attorney promptly points Gibbs at a second crime without directly connecting it to her client. Turns out, he was across town, committing a different crime at the time. See the trope description for why the attorney/client privilege would only have been a stopgap if the case went to trial.
- On Rookie Blue a man is suspected of abducting and killing a child but his brother insists that they were together all night and never left the house. The cops assume that the brother is lying but the case is not strong enough to go to trial without breaking the alibi first. It's only years later that the cops realize that the brother was providing a false alibi for himself. He was actually the murderer and lying about where the original suspect was (the guy got drunk and slept it off in his car) also provided him with an alibi for the night. The cops already suspected that he was lying about that night, but they were wrong about what he was lying about.
- On Fargo Lester creates an alibi for himself for the murder of Linda, his second wife that he did not commit but witnessed from across the street. He is the natural suspect for the crime and if he told the truth, it would expose the lies he told to cover up a murder he did commit. He quickly goes to a nearby diner and makes a big deal about the victim meeting him there in a few minutes. He then pretends to go to the bathroom but instead sneaks outside where he uses a pay phone to call the police to report gunshots. This skews the timeline enough that the diner owner would report that Lester was in the diner at the time of the murder. The police know that he is lying and use him as bait to catch Malvo, Linda's actual killer.
- Monk has been known to create ingenious alibis. For example:
- "Mr. Monk and the Marathon Man" has furniture salesman Trevor McDowell kill his girlfriend Gwen Zaleski and make it look like he was running in a city marathon at the time, by taking off the computer chip that tracks his progress and sticking it to the sidecar of the video camera unit that was covering the valedictory run of Nigerian runner Tonday Mawwaka.
- "Mr. Monk Goes Back to School" has science teacher Derek Philby kill his mistress, English teacher Beth Landow, then plant her body on the minute hand of a tall clocktower, before going to his classroom to proctor an SAT, so that at 8:25 AM, the body falls and lands on his car, setting off the alarm.
- "Mr. Monk and the Sleeping Suspect" has a case of an alibi where the guy was in a Convenient Coma. His intention was to lead Stottlemeyer and Disher on a police chase and get thrown in jail as a result, but he crashed his car and ended up in the coma which ended up working better for his alibi.
- "Mr. Monk Meets the Playboy" has Monk suspect that billionaire playboy Dexter Larsen killed his publisher Elliott D'Souza. Dex seems shady, and he has a girlfriend who can vouch for him. Then it turns out he bribed her to supply the alibi for him.
- "Mr. Monk and the Astronaut" has astronaut Steve Wagner kill a former girlfriend Joanne Raphelson, and his alibi is that he was in outer space at the time of the murder
- "Mr. Monk and the Bad Girlfriend" has Monk and Natalie suspect that Stottlemeyer's girlfriend Linda Fusco killed her business partner with a shotgun. Her alibi is that she was talking to Monk, Natalie and Stottlemeyer on webcam right before the murder from her house. There are two suspects in the shooting: Linda and a schoolteacher the victim sold a house to who wrote threatening letters. Monk rules out the schoolteacher because of her lack of an alibi, and decides Linda is the only person who could have done it because the killer waited until there were witnesses before committing the murder so that someone would be able to say exactly when the shooting happened, because the shooter is someone with an alibi for 7:20 PM.
- In Murdoch Mysteries, Murdoch and his colleagues frequently have to cope with these. One suspect, a university physics professor, actually uses the word "alibi" to Murdoch and the detective finds the word choice remarkable (as does the Inspector when he hears of it).
- Columbo. In "Agenda For Murder," a defense attorney working for a congressman kills someone who tried to blackmail them both. When told of this, the congressman asks curiously, "Who's your alibi?" Cue Oh Crap! look as the lawyer smiles evilly at him...
- One episode of Police Squad! has Drebin trying to break the alibi of a recently released criminal who is the suspect in a series of bombings. He and his girlfriend were lying about his alibi, but it turned out he wasn't the bomber - he had spent the day of the bombing at a baseball game, and the reason they were covering it up was because the game was in another state and he hadn't cleared his crossing state lines with his parole officer before leaving. After he helps stop the real criminal, the police choose to let the parole violation slide.
- The song "Long Black Veil", which provides our page quote, has a man whose alibi is that he had been in the arms of his best friend's wife. Rather than reveal this and disgrace her, he chooses to stay mum and die.
- In Batman: The Animated Series episode, "Appointment in Crime Alley", Roland Dagget wants to rezone and redevelop Gotham's old Park Row neighborhood (a slum known locally by the name of "Crime Alley"). His request is denied by the Town Hall, so he arranges so that an arsonist will blow up Crime Alley while making it look like a gas explosion. This is scheduled to happen at 9:00 sharp, while Dagget himself is attending a business meeting. As explained above, this is not actually an alibi, but Mr. Dagget isn't a legal expert.
- The Simpsons: In "Who Shot Mr. Burns?", Chief Wiggum goes down the list of suspects and finds that each one has an alibi or other exculpation.
- Smithers, who at first confessed to the murder, makes a comment from the show Pardon My Zinger while being interviewed. Watching the news, Sideshow Mel realized that the show aired at the time of the shooting, and thus Smithers was not the shooter. Further interrogation revealed that he had shot Jasper on his wooden leg while in a drunken rage.
- Guest star Tito Puente planned revenge on Burns, but chose to do so with a slanderous mambo.
- Principal Skinner confesses he was on his way to shoot Burns, but was still applying face paint when the shooting occured. Superintendent Chalmers can vouch for him, "but everything else he says is a filthy lie." (Chalmers had caught him putting on his mother's makeup by mistake.)
- Groundskeeper Willie couldn't have fired the shot because of crippling arthritis on his index fingers, which he got in the eighties from Space Invaders. note
- Juan Catalan was arrested for the murder of a teenage girl whose testimony put his brother in prison. His alibi was that he was at a baseball game when the murder occurred and he offered his ticket stubs as evidence. He also asked the authorities to look for him in game footage and volunteered to take a lie detector test. The ticket stubs were deemed inadmissible, he couldn't be found in any footage from the game, and his request for a lie detector was denied, so he went to prison while still proclaiming his innocence. Then, footage of him at the game was discovered in, of all places, an outtake from Curb Your Enthusiasm. He was released shortly afterwards.