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Accidental Child-Killer Backstory

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"A reflex - I didn't mean to..."

If murder is the most heinous crime, murder of a child is considered especially unforgivable. A character who is revealed to have killed a child in the past will usually be considered to have retroactively crossed the Moral Event Horizon.

Unless, of course, they didn't mean to.

In this character's Dark and Troubled Past, they made a terrible mistake and a child died because of it. For heroic characters, the child's death will become My Greatest Failure. Expect all their interactions with children in the present to be influenced by this; they may become either a Friend to All Children or emotionally closed off and hesitant to spend any time around them.

The most innocent iteration of the character will have caused the death only indirectly, such as by neglecting to watch a child under their care closely enough to prevent a deadly mishap. Others were directly responsible for killing the child but still as a genuine accident, such as a car crash, with no intention of hurting anyone. Grimmer still are characters who fully intended to use lethal force, but mistook the child for someone threatening or killed them inadvertently as Collateral Damage while aiming for someone else. If violence was part of the character's profession (law enforcement, military, Professional Killer), they will question their ability to continue that job, and may outright quit.

The most unfortunate cases will either be driven mad from the guilt or be murdered themselves, as Revenge for the child's death. Alternatively, a character may be given My Greatest Second Chance when another child's life is in danger, although they may wind up performing a Heroic Sacrifice, dying to save the kid that reminded them of their horrible mistake. Heroes that survive will learn to live with themselves, but always carry the knowledge of their actions.

Universally results in the character thinking My God, What Have I Done? If the child's death was a Failure-to-Save Murder, the person responsible Let Gwen Stacy Die. If the death was due to laziness, it's a case of Lethal Negligence. Sometimes they Must Make Amends, possibly through a Redemption Quest.

May be part of a Standard Cop Backstory. Compare Sympathetic Murder Backstory. Compare and contrast The Atoner, whose previous crimes were intentional, and numerous.

As this is a Death Trope, unmarked spoilers abound. Beware.


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    Comic Books 
  • Anthony Bourdain's Hungry Ghosts: Subverted in "The Heads". The trattoria owner claims that he once sold cheap cheese which fatally poisoned a customer. The illustration shows a young boy coughing up blood while the owner looks on in horror. This tragedy apparently led him to live a better life, eager to help people like the protagonist...but it's all a lie to gain sympathy and trust. The owner, a demon in disguise, does not want to help the protagonist so much as eat him.
  • L.A.W.: Mitchell Black was once a surgeon who performed a risky surgery on a seven-year-old boy against the objections of the boy's parents. When the boy died from complications caused by the surgery, Mitchell had his medical license revoked. He joined the Peacemaker Corps to atone for his actions.
  • Seven Soldiers of Victory (2005): Before becoming the Manhattan Guardian, Jake Jordan was a police officer who quit the force after shooting an unarmed teenager whom he had mistaken for the man who murdered his partner.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • Blazing Saddles has a subversion, where the setup for this trope instead ends with Kids Are Cruel. Jim "the Waco Kid" is a former gunslinger who's now a washed-up alcoholic. When asked how he wound up this way, he describes how his fame as a gunslinger attracted every punk with a gun, eager to make a name for themselves by challenging the Waco Kid, until:
    Jim: Then one day, I was just walking down the street when I heard a voice behind me say, "Reach for it, mister!" I spun around... and there I was, face to face with a six-year-old kid. Well, I just threw my guns down and walked away.... Little bastard shot me in the ass.
  • Die Hard: Officer Al Powell shot and killed a child whom he believed was holding a gun. He gets his second chance by saving McClane at the end of the movie.
  • Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald: Leta Lestrange feels responsible for the death of her infant brother Corvus, due to switching him with another infant to get some peace from his crying while they were sailing to America. When the ship sank, the real Corvus was lost at sea, while the other child, presumed to be Corvus, was put into hiding and grew up to be Credence. The drowning infant became her boggart when she was older.
  • Halloween Ends: Corey Cunningham started as a well-intentioned babysitter. Jeremy, the kid he was taking care of decided to play a nasty prank on him by luring the man in the attic pretending to be endangered and trapping him there. Corey lost patience as he asked Jeremy to open the door, and eventually forced the door in anger, not knowing that the boy was right behind it and thus, pushing and causing him to fall to his death from the floor railing. Corey is eventually acquitted, but becomes a town pariah.
  • In Bruges: Rookie hitman Ray is sent to Bruges, Belgium after royally screwing up his first assignment: shooting a Catholic priest in a confession booth, only for a bullet that went through the priest to kill a little boy waiting to give confession behind him. While he appears snarky on the outside, the guilt is quickly making him manic and suicidal.
  • It's a Wonderful Life: Zig-zagged. In the original timeline, George Bailey prevents Mr. Gower from accidentally poisoning a child, as the druggist was despondent over the death of his son to the flu, and did not fill out the prescription properly. In the new timeline where George never existed, he wasn't there to prevent Mr. Gower from poisoning the child, and the man is considered a pariah by the local community.
  • Little Children: As in the novel, Larry is a Troubled Sympathetic Bigot who was forced out of the police and hunts down the child molester Ronnie as a result. It turns out that Larry was fired after shooting and killing a child after mistaking his toy pistol for a real gun.
  • The Machinist: At the start of the film, once-popular mechanic Trevor Reznik is a walking skeleton, slowly going insane from hallucinations tormenting him and accusing him of having committed a heinous crime. The audience ultimately learns that Trevor accidentally ran over a little boy with his car and then fled the scene of the crime. Turning himself in and coming to terms with his actions finally puts him on the road to salvation.
  • Mean Guns: Lou, a retired hitman, quits the mob after a botched hit in the past where he accidentally shot a little boy. It was his mistake that led him into partaking in the film's main event, a free-for-all shootout where a hundred killers, many of them Death Seekers, will hunt down and execute each other until the Sole Survivor gets to leave with a 10 million cash reward.
  • The November Man: Peter Deveroux, the titular hitman, quits his profession in disgrace after a botched mission in Montenegro accidentally left a young boy dead, until he's dragged back into the force five years later. Subverted that its Peter's partner, Mason, who pulled the trigger that killed the child, but Peter still felt that he was responsible for the killing due to poor timing.
  • The Prince stars Jason Patric as Paul, a former hitman who retired in disgrace after a failed attempt to kill New Orleans crime boss, Omar via Car Bomb, only to accidentally blow up Omar's wife and daughter. Unfortunately, Omar isn't willing to let Paul off easily and sends his thugs after Paul's daughter.
  • Quigley Down Under: "Crazy" Cora tells a heartbreaking tale to Matthew Quigley about how she accidentally smothered her son trying to quiet him so that a group of Comanches wouldn't find them. Her husband, Roy, sent her on the first boat to Australia. She almost repeats her mistake while caring for an Aboriginal child when attacked by dingoes, but she realizes in time what she's doing, and instead, decides that she and the child should both "make some noise" as she starts blasting the attacking dingoes.
  • Saw:
    • Saw III: Timothy Young was driving drunk when he struck and killed Jeff's son Dylan. He felt horrible about the accident, but that didn't stop Jigsaw from putting him in a Death Trap to test Jeff's capacity for forgiveness. Despite his efforts, Jeff fails to save Timothy, who dies gruesomely.
    • Subverted with Anna in Jigsaw. Just before the second trap of the barn game begins, Anna tells the other victims that she and her husband simply lost their child, but it's revealed near the end that she actually asphyxiated the baby intentionally and tricked her husband into thinking he did it accidentally, which drove him to suicide.
  • A Walk Among the Tombstones: This is the reason protagonist Matthew Scudder quit his job as a cop and gave up alcohol because a stray shot from his gun during a shootout killed a little girl.

  • And Then There Were None:
    • Subverted. Agatha Christie spends the whole of the novel building up Vera Claythorne as a sympathetic character; the "crime" for which U.N. Owen wants to punish her is the accidental death of Cyril, the young boy she looked after as a governess. Until the end of the novel, that is, when it is revealed that Vera deliberately arranged for the circumstances of Cyril's death—she was in love with his uncle Hugo, who had been disinherited after Cyril was born because the younger boy had a greater legal claim to the bloodline. She set Cyril up to die so that Hugo could receive the full inheritance, only to learn (too late) that Hugo genuinely loved the child and was absolutely disgusted by her actions.
    • Played straight with Anthony Marston, who ran over two children with his car. However, he shows no remorse for his crime, blaming the kids for walking around at night and only worrying about having his license taken away for six months. U.N. Owen decides to kill him first since Marston doesn't feel remorse for his actions and therefore would be impossible to torment.
  • In Theo's backstory in Children of Men, he inadvertently ran over his own daughter while backing out of the driveway. His then-wife never forgave him, and he does not seem to have ever forgiven himself either. (This happens only in the book; in the film, his child, a son, died in an epidemic.)
  • Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: 14-year-old Ariana Dumbledore died in the crossfire of a duel between her brothers and Gellert Grindelwald. Neither Albus nor Aberforth knew which of them dealt the killing blow, but the death broke Albus and Gellert's relationships apart, and Albus never trusted himself with power again.
  • House of the Scorpion: Tam Lin, the young protagonist Matt's bodyguard and father figure, is haunted by his past as a terrorist, when he accidentally killed twenty children in a bombing intended to target a politician. After helping Matt flee the country, Tam Lin commits suicide to atone for his crime.
  • The Langoliers has British spy/agent Nick Hopewell, who volunteers for a certain death task that must be performed — because, as a younger man, he accidentally shot some children in Northern Ireland, who were miming throwing hand grenades at him... which were really potatoes painted grey.

    Live-Action TV 
  • American Horror Story: Asylum has Sister Jude, who became a nun after running over a young girl while driving drunk. She later learns that the girl actually survived, which contributes to her Heel–Face Turn.
  • Breaking Bad: While in rehab after his girlfriend's death, Jesse hears his group leader talk about accidentally backing a car over his own daughter while high on cocaine. The leader now spends his time trying to help others keep from making the same mistakes.
  • Criminal Minds:
    • Roy Woodridge, the killer in the episode "Distress", is a Shell-Shocked Veteran who never fully recovered from the time when he instinctively snapped an enemy combatant's neck, only to realize it was a Child Soldier. Believing he is still at war, he goes on a killing spree, which ends when he sees a boy in the street whom he hallucinates is the dead soldier. When he rushes toward the child to try and "save" him, Woodridge is shot and killed by a police sniper who thought he was attacking.
    • Several unsubs have lost their child from an accident when they weren't watching closely enough ("Gatekeeper," "Alchemy," "The Night Watch"). While the unsub of "Hanley Waters" wasn't at fault for the car accident that killed her son, she still blames herself because she was yelling at him for kicking her seat when it happened.
  • Doctor Who: Danny Pink accidentally shot and killed a child during his service in Afghanistan. It caused him to leave the service. When Danny is killed in a car accident, and then resurrected as a Cyberman, The Doctor gives him a means of returning to life to live with Clara. Danny sacrifices this opportunity to instead restore the child he'd accidentally killed.
  • House: In "Emancipation", House's teenage patient needs a bone marrow transplant from a family member, but she lies about her identity to avoid seeing her parents. House guesses that something happened that makes her think she doesn't deserve to live, so she confesses that she ran away from home because her little brother drowned in the bathtub when she was supposed to be looking after him. She assumes her parents must hate her, but House convinces her to call them by pointing out that if she lets herself die, she'll be killing their other child.
  • Luke Cage: Detective Rafael Scarfe is a dirty, corrupt cop but it's indicated that his start of darkness was the death of his son — inadvertently caused by Scarfe himself when he left his gun out, fully loaded and his son played with it and shot himself.
  • M*A*S*H: The series finale "Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen" has Hawkeye suffering a mental breakdown because he feels responsible for a mother smothering her child while they were trying to hide from a Chinese patrol when he demanded that she keep the infant quiet. When the noise stops, he looks around, horrified, realizing what his words have wrought. It was so traumatic, he edits the memory in his own mind, remembering it as a chicken rather than a baby. But Sidney Freedman forces him to confront the truth in an effort to try and salvage his mind.
  • The Monk episode "Mr. Monk Meets Dale the Whale" has Dr. Christiaan Vezza — or, to use his real name, Glenn Q. Sindell, a disgraced former surgeon who inadvertently killed a child by operating while high out of his mind on drugs. Sindell jumped bail and tried to start a new life for himself, only for Dale "the Whale" Biederbeck III to learn the secret and use it to blackmail him into following his every order, including committing a murder. At the end of the episode, Sindell decides to turn states' evidence against Dale to atone for his crimes.
  • Orange Is the New Black:
    • Yoga Jones is in prison for accidentally shooting an 8-year-old boy with a hunting rifle (she was trying to ward deer away from her marijuana crop and he was running away from home). Her hippie, Buddhist lifestyle is how she copes with the guilt.
    • Suzanne "Crazy Eyes" Warren was left unsupervised and without her antipsychotic medications. She met a little kid while working as a store greeter, then she saw him at the park and invited him home. But when he wanted to go home and she wouldn't let him leave, he got scared and ran out on the fire escape, falling to his death. The guilt definitely hasn't helped her mental health.
  • The Outer Limits episode "Fear Itself". Subverted. Bernard is initially a very troubled man who accidentally killed his little sister in a fire by playing with matches while she was sleeping, thus starting his crippling anxiety. In the last scene, he discovers that it was actually a Pedophile Priest who gaslit him and blamed the young boy for his crime.
  • Oz: Tobias Beecher was sent to prison for accidentally killing a little girl in a drunk driving accident. While the act itself is rightfully treated as heinous and warranting punishment, Beecher's status as one of the kinder inmates and the horrific Trauma Conga Line he goes through after being incarcerated make him one of the more sympathetic characters.
  • Person of Interest: One Victim of the Week was a supervisor of a 911 call center. Her work is driven by the fact that when she was a teenager, a child she was babysitting died on her watch.
  • Worf from Star Trek is exceptionally rigid and uptight, rarely allowing himself to relax around others. An unusual enough trait for humans- who he was raised among- but especially odd for a Klingon. It's eventually revealed that as a child he was much less self-controlled, until a collision with another boy during a soccer game. Klingons are physically much tougher than humans, and the other boy died, which made Worf realize he had to maintain strict control of himself to avoid hurting the humans around him.
  • True Detective: In Season 1, Rust's nihilism is revealed to have stemmed from the death of his young daughter, who he accidentally ran down in the driveway of his and his wife's home.
  • On Walker, Texas Ranger, Trent Malloy would never think about touching a gun ever again after he fought another kid over one, which resulted in that kid's accidental death. While it was an accident, Trent never forgave himself for this incident and has since then preferred hand-to-hand combat any day. His disdain for guns eventually proves to be his undoing in Season 7's "Special Witness" when a federally-wanted assassin is hired by a mob boss to kill him in order to prevent him from testifying in court, and a Special Olympian he was escorting to running practice had to assist the Rangers in catching his attacker.


  • In The Mousetrap, it's revealed that the Serial Killer using "Three Blind Mice" as a Calling Card is targeting a trio of individuals connected to a past tragedy: three children were sent to live with foster parents, only to be horrifically abused to the point of one dying. Of the "three blind mice" who the murderer intends to kill, the first two are directly responsible for the tragedy: Maureen Lyon, the children's foster mother, and Mrs. Boyle, the magistrate who ordered the children sent to the farm seemingly without doing due diligence on whether it was a safe home (and was cold and unrepentant in the aftermath). The third, however, was merely caught up in a horrible coincidence: Mollie Ralston was the children's schoolteacher, and as she was actually one of the few adults in their lives who showed them kindness, the boy who died decided to reach out to her for help. Shortly before his death, he managed to send her a letter telling her of the abuse he and his siblings were enduring, but in a cruel twist of fate, Mollie developed pneumonia on the day the letter was delivered and consequently didn't see said letter until she returned to school following her recovery from the illness, by which point the child was already dead. She admits that she has been haunted by the incident all her life and blames herself for what happened.
  • Peter Pan Goes Wrong: Played For Black Comedy. Robert (or David Suchet, in the case of the 2016 BBC broadcast) tells the audience about how during a stage production of Oliver Twist, the person playing Mr. Bumble fell on one of the child actors, and the child died of his injuries due to Robert/David having parked his car in such a way that the ambulance couldn't get to him in time. He blames himself for the child's death... then he reveals that he was the one who was playing Mr. Bumble.

    Video Games 
  • Darkest Dungeon: The Highwayman's backstory comic shows him conducting an attack on a stagecoach where he reflexively fires into the stagecoach's window, killing a mother and her child. If his quotes while Afflicted and his Crimson Court trinket set (which includes a locket containing his victims' faces) are any indication, he feels immense guilt about the murders. The sequel, Darkest Dungeon II, takes it further by showing us the story in full: the Highwayman broke out of prison and escaped to the sewers, but was Reduced to Ratburgers not long after. Eventually, he got hungry and desperate enough to take a job robbing a stagecoach. After the fighting was done, the Highwayman noticed the mother and child's corpses, and felt immense regret about what he'd done.
  • Dead by Daylight: When The Artist, Carmina Mora, was a young girl, she left her brother in the yard for a moment, which was enough time for him to wander off and drown in a nearby creek. In a twist on the trope, their father was also present and could have saved his son, but he was too busy drinking to pay attention. Nonetheless, Carmina's father blames her entirely for the boy's death, and the guilt nearly drives her to kill herself; it is implied this is when The Entity first noticed her and intervened to prevent her suicide.
  • Deus Ex: Human Revolution: The second "social Boss Battle" of the game is against Adam Jensen's former SWAT subordinate Wayne Haas. On their last mission, Jensen refused to follow orders to shoot a rampaging cyber-augmented 15-year-old, so Haas took the shot and killed the kid instead. As a result, Haas soon developed a painkiller addiction to cope with his guilt and was demoted to a precinct desk sergeant, which is where Jensen meets him again when he needs to access the precinct morgue. In order to convince Haas to let him inside, Jensen has to absolve him of his guilt and to help him forgive himself by pointing out that they have been Just Following Orders.
  • OMORI: Downplayed because Sunny was also a child during the incident, but during an argument with his big sister Mari after he threw his violin down the stairs in frustration, Sunny angrily tries to push her away to get away from her, only to accidentally push her down the stairs to her death. His best friend Basil, who witnessed the incident, helped Sunny stage it as a suicide by hanging Mari's lifeless body from a tree in the backyard. The guilt and self-hatred that Sunny felt after the incident drives the conflict for the game.
  • Twisted Metal Black: Agent Stone, the driver of Outlaw, was a SWAT sniper who found himself getting locked up in Blackfield asylum after he shot a little girl and her mother when he let his anger get the best of him during a hostage situation. He enters Calypso's tournament to go back in time and correct this mistake, only to get shot in the head by a Not Quite Dead terrorist upon doing so.

    Web Videos 
  • Critical Role: In the campaign pre-stream, Keyleth accidentally killed a young boy when her attempt to rescue him from the Dread Emperor ended in a Neck Snap. The aftereffects of this carry over into the show, where we see her resolve in her personal quest begin to falter due to the guilt.

    Western Animation 
  • Parodied in The Cleveland Show where Cleveland gives a speech about accidentally shooting a kid, only to be told he is ripping off Die Hard.