Anyone else may be the murderer. The Grand Lama of Tibet, maybe, or the lady principal of a girls' seminary three thousand miles away. But not—trust the novelist!—not the man with the gun in his hand, who is leaning over the still quivering corpse.
— Edmund Pearson, Murders That Baffled the Experts
Pretty much any Police Procedural will at some point note that the person who "finds" a body is usually a pretty good first suspect. However, this is simply a starting point for the investigation, and the evidence will usually lead to someone else - if it didn't, there wouldn't be much of a story.
In other genres, though, the first suspect is the prime suspect. End of.
Here's the scene: Our hero, usually someone Walking the Earth, arrives in the Adventure Town late at night when some intrigue is going on. Suddenly, he hears cries of alarm, and, being a hero, rushes off to see what's happened. He finds a hapless Red Shirt, recently killed by this week's murderer/monster/freakish otherworldly phenomenon. He stoops down to check the body and see if there's anything he can do to help.
Approximately two seconds later, the authorities arrive on the scene. Often, they will be led, unknown to everyone, by the Real Killer. Since the hero was found hunched over the body, he is instantly assumed to be the murderer, and it will be damned hard for him to convince anyone otherwise.
In Speculative Fiction, it will usually turn out that on this Planet of Hats, the local justice system is sufficiently ill-conceived that being found hunched over a dead body is considered absolute legal proof of guilt, unless the suspect can produce the actual killer himself.
This trope is often (and cheaply) accompanied by a sub-trope: "Don't pick up the knife!" The person standing over the corpse feels inexplicably compelled to pick up the bloody knife, smoking gun, or gory fireplace poker lying next to the victim. This makes it easier for the writer to justify the police ignoring all other evidence and possible suspects, but is counter-intuitive: what instinct or rationale could cause a normal human being to touch such a horrible object, let alone pick it up?note When one finds an obvious murder victim, with no idea whether the killer is still in the vicinity, seems plausible to grab a handy weapon for self-defense in case the killer re-appears and decides to get rid of the finder. With embedded knives, this is worse as removing a knife from a stabbing victim can actually cause more harm by unplugging the wound. And of course, see Better Manhandle the Murder Weapon.
In some instances, this can be justified as racism: in works taking place in a racist society, a black or foreign person will automatically be considered the murderer, because these people are corrupt, white/local/superior race people are obviously righteous and no person of that kind would murder someone.
A special case of Wrongly Accused. Compare Red Herring.
As a Death Trope, all Spoilers will be unmarked ahead. Beware.
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In the Cyborg 009's '79 series, this was G.B./007's backstory. He regularly went hiking with his best friend; during one trip, equipment failure led to his friend's death. Since his friend had recently been chosen for a lead role over him, everyone suspected foul play was involved, and he wound up blacklisted, spiraling into depression until he was picked up in a bar by Black Ghost.
Played ridiculously straight in Deadman Wonderland; Ganta is the only one left after a man with superpowers murders everyone else in his class and is blamed for it. While his conviction was clearly the result of a conspiracy, the public at large seem ready to accept that a shrimpy teenager like Ganta could kill and tear apart the bodies of 29 people at once, even before the fake footage of him confessing gets out.
In thisGlee/NCISCross Over, Dave Karofsky stumbles over the mutilated body of his best friend and fellow Navy SEAL, Kimberly. Team Gibbs thinks he killed her because he knew her, he found her body, and she just so happened to be killed the one day Dave didn't go with her on her morning run. And no, he didn't do it, he was framed. He tells Team Gibbs he didn't go with Kim on the morning run because he'd had a bad bout of hay fever the night before, but they don't believe him because it's not allergy season. Turns out he was deliberately doused in pollen to make sure he'd stay in, thus giving the real murderer opportunity to kill Kim and pin it on Dave.
Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. In this case, it was at least plausible that Kirk and McCoy were responsible for killing the Klingon chancellor, since Kirk was a known Klingon-hater; also, the assumption was that he had ordered the assassination, not that he had killed him directly. During their trial, the prosecution against McCoy shifts away from suggesting that he was one of the assassins, and instead focuses on the idea that he was criminally (or possibly willfully) incompetent in his attempts to save the victim.
Nevertheless, Kirk and McCoy were arrested under authority of "Interstellar Law," which seems to say something like, "If your ship has been attacked and boarded by unknown parties, you may arrest and prosecute the very next people who voluntarily beam aboard."
Not only the Enterprise was the only vessel in transporter range, the Klingon scanners and even their own data confirmed that the torpedoes were fired by them. Adding that the assassins wore Starfleet equipment, and there appeared to be no other ships in transporter range, it is quite understandable that no-one gave "unknown party" much thought. (It turns out that there were Enterprise crew members involved.)
Besides, the Klingons have a habit of subjecting Starfleet captains to show trials, they did the same thing in Enterprise.
Major point of the setup in the Fridge Logic-prone Double Jeopardy. The wife is found on the boat her husband just purchased, the boat is covered in blood, and the Coast Guard discovers her holding the knife. No body is found. The evidence at trial includes a radio message that her husband sent, saying his wife was trying to kill him. There is no mention as to whether the blood found on the boat was tested. To convict her, the jury would have to believe that she went crazy, stabbed her husband multiple times, let him radio for help, kept stabbing him, dumped him overboard and then stood around holding the murder weapon. Well, people seldom act calmly and rationally when they commit bloody domestic murders.
In The Green Mile around the 1930's a huge, seemingly retarded, black man is found holding the bloodied and raped bodies of two little (white) girls. The reason was that he tried to magically heal them back to life. Yeah, he'd probably gotten the death penalty even if he hadn't gotten stuck with a racist attorney.
Shortly after a card sharp swindles one of the protagonists in Life, he stumbles upon both protagonists after being brutally beaten — by the racist hick sheriff and his cronies, naturally — just in time to kick the bucket, leading to the arrest of both protagonists.
Angel Heart: Harry Angel becomes the prime suspect for several murders which he didn't commit. Turns out he actually did.
The Hurricane: Rubin Carter was at the Lafayette bar, when two armed criminals broke in and spread gunfire all over the place. Two white delinquents said they saw Carter running away from the scene, and because white people are obviously better than black people, Carter was declared guilty and fast-tracked into jail with three life sentences. After 19 years of legal struggle, the court finally declared Carter free on account of racism having been the driving force behind his conviction.
Though in real life, if one cuts away all the agendas on BOTH sides, the actual evidence is a little more oblique on whether or not Carter had NOTHING to do with it.
Bizarre subversion: In Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Harry teleports into a humongous crowd along with Cedric Diggory. The crowd stops cheering and gasps when they notice that Harry is clutching his dead body. Even though no-one saw how Cedric died and the first anyone knew of his death was Harry appearing in front of everyone with his corpse, and even though the government later denied the true cause of Cedric's death and denounced both Harry and his story, no-one accuses Harry (or anyone else) of killing him. Instead, it's claimed Cedric died in an accident. Although it is mentioned that all the other students avoided Harry for the rest of the term, and that "Perhaps they were formulating their own theories about how Cedric had died." That was probably because Dumbledore later tells the entire school that Cedric was murdered by Voldemort.
Although the fifth book does hint at the fact that people might think that Harry did kill Cedric. As Hermione put it, nobody knows what went on during the third task and all of a sudden, Harry teleports in front of everybody, clutching Cedric's dead body. It helped that the Prophet and rest of the Wizarding World was basically calling him a liar.
On the other hand, Harry is blamed for Dumbledore's death since he was the only one up there the entire time when it happened. By this time, however, Voldemort's people are in full control of the Press and the justice system, and the accusation comes as no surprise.
The Conan the Barbarian story "The God in the Bowl" by Robert E. Howard opens with this situation: Arus the watchman, who is the first on the scene of the murder of Kallian Publico, immediately jumps to the conclusion that Conan was the killer when he revealed himself, kicking off an investigation when his fellows come by. (It doesn't exactly help that Conan broke into the place to steal.)
Sculptor turned sleuth Sam Jones invokes this trope to intimidate some suspects by leading them to suspect she's just really good at getting away with murder.
Patricia Highsmith's psychological-suspense novel Cry of the Owl is based largely on this trope and the "don't touch the knife" subtrope. In fact, the book ends with "...don't touch it".
"When you find someone standing over a corpse with a smashed-in skull while holding a bent fireplace poker and saying 'He shouldn't have said that about our Neville!', it's kind of hard to make it stretch much past lunchtime."
Played with to ludicrous extents in "The Tale of the Hunchback" from the Arabian Nights. Everyone in the story in turn assumes that if they're found with the hunchback's body they'll be accused of his murder, so they find some way of disposing of it in secret, only for the next person to find it. In the end, it turns out that he's not really dead.
Heck, this trope generally defines Buffy's high school experience. She's constantly fighting the undead and whatnot, and gets labeled a troublemaker because she's missing so many classes and being near unfortunate events (due to, you know, stopping them from being worse.)
This happens to Willie Nelson, of all people, in an episode of Monk.
Heroes: When Hiro goes to meet Isaac the painter in the first episode, Isaac is already dead and Hiro is arrested — by a police force that conveniently storms the room at just that moment.
Happens in Cane. Alex Vega is in the house of his hated enemy Joe Samuels, when several gunshots from outside kill Samuels. The cops arrive shortly afterwards. The twist: Alex did have every intention of killing Samuels himself; the other shooter just beat him to it. The cops find the gun he was planning to use in his pocket. He's Genre Savvy enough to point out that if they test it, they'll find that it hasn't been fired. The well-known feud between the two men, along with other evidence, leads to him being the prime suspect anyway, even to his own family.
This happens in Supernatural enough that the main characters were pretty high on the FBI wanted list and considered serial killers. Of course, in their case, the problem is exacerbated by their tendency to commit crimes like credit card fraud and corpse desecration, and by many of the monsters and demons they kill leaving corpses indistinguishable from human corpses.
One episode has Dean get arrested because of this. One of the detectives lets him go free (and reports that he "escaped") when it's revealed that her partner/boyfriend was committing the murders.
Ned's discovery of a corpse in the Balsam's Bittersweets taffy vat in Pushing Daisies.
And narrowly avoided earlier in the series, when a corpse is planted in Ned's fridge to frame him and he only just manages to dump the body before the police arrive.
At the start of the Ryuki's World arc in Kamen Rider Decade, Natsumi is meeting with the publisher of a magazine when the woman grabs the back of her neck and keels over, dead. People rush into the room and, because Natsumi is standing there holding a fork (which she was using to eat cake), she's assumed to be the murderer. Admittedly, the murder WAS the result of a supernatural assassin, but it's still hard to mistake a cut caused by a monster throwing an energy sickle from the nearby cafe through the window and into the publisher's neck for any kind of wound a standard fork would have inflicted.
The Highlander episode "The Innocent Man" was based on this trope.
"Prodigal Son" is also based on it, with an Immortal framing Richie for murder.
The CSI Crime Scene Investigation episode "Alter Boys", where a man in bloody clothes is found by the police trying to bury two bodies in the desert. As it turns out, the real killer is his (literal) Evil Twin, who had talked him into hiding the bodies to protect him. Unlike most examples, the main characters can't prove that he wasn't the real perp, since every little bit of evidence point to him (twins sharing the same DNA and all), so he is sentenced to life in prison, and while in there he commits suicide.
In the 90s live-action Zorro, a laborer drives away the man who killed his employer with his musket shortly before the Alcalde arrives. Seeing a man killed by a gunshot wound and a man with a recently fired gun (And with the only other witness to the actual incident unconscious and unable to testify), the Alcalde decides that the laborer killed his employer and does his best to railroad him to a prompt hanging.
One episode of NCIS had Director Vance's black sheep brother-in-law being the person to report the death of a sailor, with the local police suspecting him because he has a criminal record and was covered in blood while standing next to a corpse. It ultimately turned out that he was the killer, though it wasn't murder: The in-law was working as a shill in a con job, and the sailor attacked the man who he saw as responsible for him losing all his money, resulting in an accidental killing in self-defense.
The show Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar once had the PI interrupt a murder. The murderer locked him in a closet with the murder weapon and then called the police. Naturally, the police had a hard time believing the story.
Happens to Paul Luther, the Franciscan monk in Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem. Unusually for this trope, he immediately screams for help; then again, since the murder "weapon" was a Body Horror forcing its way out of the victim's chest, he probably couldn't have picked it up. Unfortunately, since the whole church is in on an Ancient Conspiracy, it doesn't help him avoid the frame-up.
The first Paper Mario, where he stumbles on a dead penguin and the penguin police arrive moments after. He wasn't really dead.
Happens to our Heroic Mime in Suikoden IV. His commander dies because of his Blessed with Suck rune, and after which his "best friend" finds the two and immediately accuses the hero of being the murderer. His best friend than goes on to later try to kill him at least twice in the game. Then again he does eventually realize that hes being an idiot and joins you as the last needed star, that is if you didn't decide to kill him before that can happen.
Taken to ludicrous extremes in Discworld Noir. Lewton finally finds the guy he's looking for when he's knocked unconscious from behind. When he comes to, the guy's dead and Vimes and Nobby are standing over him and telling him he's the prime suspect. Other characters are impressed by the way he knocked himself out to allay suspicion.
This happens several times in the Laura Bow series. Laura never gets directly accused, though, but the detective in the second game does point out how suspicious it is that she's always the first one to find the bodies. Of course, he's the actual killer.
This is what happens to Corvo at the beginning of Dishonored; you fight off some assassins, The Dragon turns up and stabs the Empress in the chest (and kidnaps her daughter), there's a bit of cradling her as she dies and a group of dignitaries and guards turn up to point the finger at you. Justified by the fact that the (important) witnesses to the attack were in on it. Corvo returned home from a diplomatic mission early, so framing him was just an unfortunate addition.
Happens twice in Jack Orlando to the titular private detective. At the start of the game, a drunken Orlando sees a shooting in an alley, and is then knocked out himself. When the police find him and the corpse, their assumption is that he's the killer. It then happens again when someone attacks Orlando and Bellinger in a drive-by shooting. Bellinger dies, while Orlando fires back... just in time for someone to come out of a nearby building and see him standing over Bellinger's corpse with a gun.
In the backstory of Soulcalibur V, Pyrrha Alexandra was falsely accused of murdering her fiancé Jurgis, though he was actually killed by Tira.
In Higurashi no Naku Koro ni, Keiichi stumbles upon the disemboweled corpse of Rika while bringing Satoko to get some clothes. He realizes that crows are feeding on the body and waves his axe (brought along for an entirely separate reason) to scare them away. While waving it around, he drops it in the blood and picks it up. Predictably, Satoko comes back and freaks out. The best part? When she runs away, Keiichi chases after her, insisting he's not the killer while carrying the same blood soaked axe. To be fair, neither Keiichi nor Satoko is in the right mind at that point.
In Umineko no Naku Koro ni Erika takes this attitude towards Natsuhi when she's found in the same room as Hideyoshi's dead body. Natsuhi didn't kill him, but Erika continues to insist that she's the culprit, and the rest of the arc ends up being one long Trauma Conga Line for her.
At least a third of Phoenix Wright's clients are victims of this, but they are almost always subverted in some way. There are many borderline examples and variations of this trope in the Ace Attorney series.
In case 1 of Ace Attorney Apollo Justice, Phoenix is accused of being the murder, partially based on being the only person in the room with the victim, who wasn't a witness. Justified in that, this reason isn't why he's on trial for the murder, but was simply something brought up in a argument.
Case 2 of Ace Attorney Investigations has Edgeworth being accused of murder, literally seconds after he found the body. Subverted and justified however, in that the main accusation is based upon a witness's misinterpretation that the juice stained wallet Edgeworth was holding was a item covered in blood.
For the most part in Ace Attorney, whenever a defendant was the first person to find the body, or are in the room with the victim, that's usually not the actual reason why they're suspected, with other, more hard evidence also being used to prove their guilt. Thus this series as a whole subverts this trope.
Lampshaded in the last case of Investigations, in which if you press Lang's statement that he was the first to find DeMasque II's body, Edgeworth will point out that Kay was suspected of killing Manny Coachen based on being the first to find the body. Lang responds that Kay was cleared of suspicion, then goes on to explain why Larry is the suspect.
Also lampshaded in the same way in Investigations when, upon Edgeworth's accusation that Shi-na is the killer based on her being the only one in the room, Lang states that "accusing someone based on being alone in a murder room is a stupid sick way of putting the guilt onto innocent people". Edgeworth however points out that Shi-na had used such a argument to put the blame of the murder onto Kay, to which Lang and Shi-na both unwillingly apologies for there rashness.
In the Murder MysteryVisual NovelJisei, the protagonist is seen as the prime suspect because he was next to the murder victim when the body was discovered.
Makoto Naegi ends up on the uncomfortable end of this in Dangan Ronpa, having been deliberately set up as a fall guy... by the victim.
The above Harry Potter example is lampooned in Sluggy Freelance during the Torg Potter and the Giblets with Fiber storyline when Torg returns with the horribly mutilated body of his fellow competitor and brandishing a shotgun, and eventually being sentenced to the universe-equivalent Azkaban by the horrified crowd who decide he's the murderer.
Mitadake Saga: Daichi is found by a fresh heart attack victim and is assumed to have killed her. Before he can argue his case, he finds an axe in his neck and dies. Of course, later it's found out that the Death Note manipulated the events...
During the early days of the Norman reign of England, the Normans instituted a policy where, if a Norman was killed in a (usually Saxon) village, the villagers would all be fined a large sum on the presumption of guilt. This almost immediately led to a Dead Man's Chest situation where, upon finding the body of anyone they didn't know, people would pack it up and proceed to dump it in the next village, making it their problem. Occasionally those villagers would find the body and Hilarity Ensues as a game of "Pass the Corpse" starts between villages until either the Norman authorities find the body or someone comes up with the bright idea of, you know, burying the body.
Preferably near another village, one assumes.
Whenever kids are playing and one starts crying expectantly, the kid who comes closer to see what happens will be usually accused of causing it.