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Accuse the Witness

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He who Sahwit, done it.
Judge: Mr. Wright, are you indicting the witness as the real murderer?
Phoenix: Of course! That is precisely what I am doing!

An unconventional courtroom tactic which involves accusing an unlikely or controversial witness of being the perpetrator of the crime—particularly the accused's spouse or other close family member. Whether or not this accusation is true is immaterial. The point is to cloud the issue and raise reasonable doubt.

An unscrupulous cousin to The Perry Mason Method. Also related to Frame-Up, though this is more spur-of-the-moment (and is often an attempt at specifically Framing the Guilty Party). If a witness does this to him/herself, it's a case of Taking the Heat. If the accuser turns out to be right by complete accident, it may overlap with Accidental Truth and Right for the Wrong Reasons.


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    Anime & Manga 
  • Variant: Kurt Godel in Negima! Magister Negi Magi claimed himself to be behind the attack on Negi's village. But he was lying. It really was apparently the senate.

    Fan Works 

    Film — Live-Action 
  • In Legally Blonde, the climax of the movie involves Elle Woods getting the murder victim's daughter to incriminate herself on the stand, by using a clever line of questioning that seems unrelated, thereby proving the innocence of Elle's client (the deceased's ex-wife).
  • In the climactic trial scene of New Jack City, Nino Brown stands up and dramatically accuses one of his lieutenants of being the real head of the gang, Cash Money Brothers. This works and he gets a ludicrously small sentence in exchange for testimony — despite every piece of evidence, including eyewitness testimony from an undercover cop — saying Nino was the boss. Or at least, it worked for a few minutes. (As a side note, the real-life drug lord Nino Brown was modeled on tried the exact same stunt and failed)

  • The whole point of the court martial in The Caine Mutiny. Greenspan unrelentingly cross-examines Queeg this way, eventually calling him as a hostile witness for the defense, accusing him of several illegal and immoral acts in order to portray him as incompetent and unfit for command. The prosecutor eventually realizes that Greenspan has turned the whole thing into a trial where the defense is prosecuting a witness. (And it works.)
  • The climax of Rumpole and the Penge Bungalow Murders by John Mortimer. Rumpole, having established that the witness was the last man to be seen with the murder weapon, had a motive, and could have shot the men, accuses him. The witness does not confess, but his denial is kind of weak — and before the prosecution can examine him again, he bolts. The judge's summation is very favorable to the possibility, and reminds the jury that if they think it's a real possibility, they can't be sure the guy on trial did it.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Bones: In "The Verdict in the Story", the defense at Max Brennan's murder trial establishes reasonable doubt by showing that the murder could've been committed by Temperance, who, working with the defense, is the one who came up with the idea of pulling a Plan B on herself.
  • Boston Legal:
    • Alan Shore is defending a woman whose much older husband died in mysterious circumstances, leaving his entire fortune to her. Their housekeeper is on the stand, and giving a fairly damning account of the defendant's behaviour. While she does this, Alan is stretching his arms and limbering up. He thanks her, then spins around and points at her in the most dramatic way possible:
      Alan: Didn't you kill him?
    • Jeffrey is defending a young man accused of killing a judge he was in a relationship with. He, seemingly spontaneously, accuses the man's mother, currently testifying, of being the actual murderer. It's later revealed that this was the mother's idea to take suspicion off her son. She is then revealed at the end to have actually committed the murder. She and her son were in an incestuous relationship and as a result she got jealous when the son started having an affair with the judge.
  • One of the last episodes of The Closer inverts this: Brenda is called as a witness in a rape trial and is certain the defendant is just the legman for the real rapist, his lawyer Phillip Stroh. Stroh gets her to admit that she thinks the wrong man is on trial, and eventually provokes her into confessing that Major Crimes is investigating him, Stroh, for the crime. Naturally, as Stroh was no doubt hoping, the judge immediately declares a mistrial, and because of weak evidence the D.A. doesn't plan on refiling.
  • Sort of referenced in The Defenders, where Nick knows that his client's alibi witness is the real killer, but can't tell anyone. He says that the jury never buys "the other guy did it", even when the other guy did do it. And this is enough for the real killer to confess to Nick, knowing he would just lie on the stand if asked. Then Nick pulls out a tape recorder.
  • Homicide: Life on the Street: A further subversion in an earlier episode. Kay Howard and Ed Danvers, while going over trial strategy on the Pony Johnson case, argue over the use of one of the victim's sons (and Pony's friend and drug mule) as a witness. Danvers notes that the son was at the scene, knew the victim and provided the bullets used to kill the victim and would thus make a terrible witness as the defense attorney would simply take all of that information and use it to set up the witness as the perfect alternative murderer, gaining them an acquittal.note 
  • Judge John Deed: Played with, in that it is revealed that a witness made a deal with the Crown Prosecution Service to get a lesser sentence for another crime. John questions the witness about this, and vows to increase his sentence. The witness then leaps from the box and attacks John, who punches him back.
  • The prosecuting attorneys on Law & Order have occasionally filed charges against a family member of their real suspect in order to pressure them into a confession, plea bargain or other "short-cut" resolution to the case. They'll also occasionally threaten to expose personal information that the defendant would rather go to jail than have made public (which seldom raises any questions as to whether they might be innocent and confessing just to keep their secret hidden), to achieve the same end. In both instances, the DAs will lampshade the desperation nature of the ploy, plus the likelihood that if the defendant doesn't bite, the presiding judge may not even let them follow through on their threat.
    • Came in handy in one case. The defendant is on trial for running a Ponzi scheme and suspected of murdering a reporter who was getting close to the truth. He's willing to testify against the mafia if he gets a generous plea deal, but because he defrauded several charities among his numerous victims, the publicity for letting him plead down would be terrible. The D.A. advises them to put pressure on him by arresting his wife (she has a tenuous link to the fund, just enough to consider her a co-conspirator). They have no intention of following through on prosecuting her once her husband cooperates, but when they process her, her fingerprints match ones found at the murder scene, meaning she's far more involved than anyone would have ever suspected.
  • The Practice employed this as a deliberate tactic enough to be the former Trope Namer.
    • One notable example is when Lindsay actually accuses the defendant's wife of conspiracy to commit murder out of the blue as the first question in her cross-examination! Then again, the accusation was true; Lindsay had a "Eureka!" Moment through an action the wife took while being questioned by the prosecutor. The suddenness and accuracy of Lindsay's accusation caused the wife to panic and plead the Fifth, leading to the judge directing a not guilty verdict and saving the defendant.
    • In one episode, Eugene and Bobby try this in a murder trial, and Bobby gets chewed out over it by Ally McBeal herself, who asks him whether he really believes that the witness did it (Bobby doesn't). It takes a very strange turn when the guy they accuse commits suicide. Then it turns out that Bobby's theory was entirely correct.
    • One plot involved the firm being sued on charges of slander over one particular instance of them trying this. In his closing argument, Jimmy says that there was honor in them doing this, not because the guy they accused probably did it, but because he probably didn't; it was a soul-destroying thing to accuse him, but they did it anyway, because it was their duty to give their client the best possible defense.
    • In one episode, they defended a woman charged with murder. The prosecution claims she ran over her boyfriend. Seven years ago, she was charged with the murder of another love interest in a similar fashion but the prosecution wasn't allowed to mention it in the trial because she was never convicted for that murder. In the time between the closing statements and the verdict (she was found guilty), the defense found out one of the witnesses was the wife of the previous murder victim.
  • Victorious: In one episode, someone sabotages Trina's harness during a play, causing her to be injured. Jade suggests Tori might've done it, claiming to have overheard the two getting in a fight. Tori responds by suggesting Jade did it to get revenge on Trina for spilling coffee on her.

    Video Games 
  • Knights of the Old Republic sees the player character defend an accused murderer on the planet Manaan. At his trial, you're given the option of asking a Rodian witness if he planted evidence to make your client look guilty. You can then use the argument that your client is being framed to potentially get him acquitted. As it turns out, the Rodian did plant the evidence, but your client really did do it. It was a case of Framing the Guilty Party.
  • Potentially inverted in Neverwinter Nights 2. During the scene when the PC is on trial, the prosecution attempts to invoke this trope by calling you as a witness to your own trial. With enough skills and charisma, you can turn the tables begin accusing the prosecutor.

    Visual Novels 
  • Done often in cases in Ace Attorney. Overlaps with The Perry Mason Method in that in a lot of cases the witness Phoenix or Apollo accuses is the real killer (or an accomplice, or tampered with the crime scene, or is withholding crucial testimony), but there's also a lot of subversions.
    • In the third case of the first game, Phoenix actually does intentionally accuse a completely innocent party purely to buy another day of investigationnote . In the process, she reveals that Global Studios Executives (which includes the real killer) were at the studios that day, purely to save herself, and this enables Phoenix to get closer to uncovering the truth.
    • In Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney – Justice For All:
      • In the third case, you can, apropos of nothing, accuse the Judge of concealing the murder weapon. Cue a 95% Penalty.
      • Played for Drama in the fourth case, where you are forced to accuse Adrian Andrews just to buy time. This also ends up backfiring spectacularly as not only does she clear her own name during the cross-examination but manages to extend the trial and inadvertently cause Phoenix to break his agreement with a kidnapper.
      • Parodied in the same case when Will Powers (a former client of Phoenix's, now a witness for another case) breaks down crying on the stand because he knows Phoenix does this in every single case he takes and assumes he'll accuse him.
        Powers: You... You're going to try to trick me into a corner, aren't you?
        Phoenix: Huh?
        Powers: I... I know I'm just a poor, underpaid action star, but... But... I... I'm not the killer!
        Phoenix: Um, no one said you were, Mr. Powers.
        Powers: No, please! Don't trick me! Every time you do your lawyer thing, the witness suddenly turns into the bad guy...
    • In case 5 of Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney – Trials and Tribulations, Phoenix doesn't even know who to accuse, and in the end isn't even sure what crime has been committed (homicide or justifiable self-defense). For fully three days, he doesn't accuse anyone.
    • Accusing the witness? Phoenix can do better than that! He goes as far as accusing the prosecutors. And at one point in the second game you have an option to select which strongly implies that the Judge is the guilty party. This is about as good an idea as you'd think. The two accused prosecutors in the original trilogy, however, are indeed guilty.
    • Presenting profiles as evidence makes it possible for you to accuse almost anyone at certain points in the game, if openly asked who the culprit is. Don't like Franziska? Go for it! Hate children? Accuse Pearls! Heck, you have Phoenix's own profile in your possession in some cases.
    • In the flashback of Phoenix's last trial in Apollo Justice, he starts pushing Valant as the murderer of Magnifi Gramayre because Valant tampered with the crime scene, but it ultimately turns out that while Valant did try to frame Zak, Magnifi's death was a suicide.
    • Used in the last case of Investigations (where it's technically a police investigation rather than a court trial but the procedure is identical) by Shi-Long Lang on Franziska von Karma. His reasoning is that she was the only person with access to both parts of the embassy at the time. At least, that's his excuse. He actually knows she's innocent and he knows Edgeworth will easily prove her innocent, but in order to prove it Alba would have to let them back into the embassy to investigate—which is where they wanted to be in the first place.
    • In the first case of Apollo Justice you go through the usual procedure of accusing the witness and even make her break down. But that isn't the end, because she didn't actually do it, you simply caught her in a lie about her role at the club where the crime takes place. It also features an inversion where the defendant and witness, Phoenix himself, accuses a member of his own defense for the crime.
    • Phoenix pulls a variation of this in the second case of the first game. Rather than accuse April May of the murder, Phoenix accuses her of (and proves her to be) wiretapping the victim. While this alone doesn't discredit April, her alibi under further cross-examination reveals another suspect for the murder itself, buying Phoenix another day for investigation.
    • In The Great Ace Attorney, this strategy blows up in Ryunosuke's face when the witness he (erroneously) accuses of murder in his first case turns up as the jury foreman in his second and carries a bit of a grudge.
      • He later tops himself and his descendant by accusing two separate judges of murder. And while one was a Japanese judge in England and had no legal authority at the time, the other was the judge for the current trial. Unlike when Phoenix tries it, this works out as both judges are guilty, though it takes a Big Damn Heroes courtesy of Herlock Sholmes and Queen Victoria herself to make it stick.
  • Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc: In the third case, Makoto accuses Celestia, who witnessed the culprit in action, of being the real culprit, because it had become clear that the murder involved a complicated plan to establish a false narrative time, and Celestia being the only witness to and greatest proponent of said narrative makes them look suspicious once said narrative has been conclusively debunked.
  • In the fifth episode of Umineko: When They Cry, Battler accuses himself of the crimes to prove that Natsuhi needn't necessarily be the culprit. Of course, everyone knows he's lying, but Erika has to accept the possibility because her own rules have eliminated all the evidence exonerating him.

    Web Videos 
  • Game Theory: Discussed in a video about Among Us. When an imposter is caught after murdering someone, they might accuse the person who caught them of committing the murder. MatPat argues this is the wrong strategy, as it becomes clear that one of the people making the accusation is a liar. Even if the imposter is successful, the rest of the crew will be suspicious of them in future rounds of the game.


    Western Animation 
  • Little Lulu: Annie was accused of breaking Eggy's guitar and Lulu managed to prove Tubby, who was testifying against Annie, was the real culprit.
  • The Simpsons: This is spoofed during Sideshow Bob's trial in "Sideshow Bob Roberts" when Bart and Lisa accuse obvious Rush Limbaugh stand-in Birchibald Barlowe of being the true mastermind behind rigging the mayoral election, on the grounds that Bob isn't smart enough to have done it himself. Bob will not stand for this. He immediately produces every piece of detailed evidence proving that he and only he could have effected such a triumph, including monogrammed leather files entitled "Bob's Fraud Log", volumes I-VI.

    Real Life 
  • Rarely, if ever, done as blatantly as in fiction, but there certainly are cases of one suspect testifying against another. Direct accusation is against the rules of practice in some jurisdictions. However, a competent lawyer should be able to pick enough holes in a genuine murderer-witness's story for what really happened to become obvious to all concerned, or at the very least secure an acquittal.
  • The Troy Davis case is an excellent example of this, as one of the key witnesses (and one of only two to maintain his testimony up until Davis' execution), Sylvestor "Red" Coles, was himself a suspect.
  • In the retrial of Nat Fraser (his first conviction was ruled unsound by the Supreme Court of the UK), one of the suspects of the murder of the defendant's wife, Hector Dick, was accused on the stand of doing the murder himself. This was not successful, though it did convince the daughter of the victim, though not the rest of her family, that Dick was the murderer.
  • In Clarence Earl Gideon'snote  second trial his lawyer argued that a key witness for the prosecution had likely been a lookout for the real criminals.
  • Older Than Feudalism: Cicero is known to have employed this tactic in his famous judicial speeches, most notably in the very first case of his career when he defended Sextus Roscius against the charge of patricide. He was a lot more direct about how he went about this than most later examples, largely due to how lax Roman trial procedure was back then.

Alternative Title(s): Accusing The Witness, Or Maybe YOU Did It