Your crimes are catching up to you. The cops/your boss/your wife knows that you're hiding something, and they're no longer buying your lies. What are you to do?
Confess, of course, just not to what you really did. Maybe you admit to a piece of what you did, but not the whole thing, maybe you completely make something up. Either way, you hold them off discovering what you're really up to.
There are clear advantages to pretending to come clean. When you admit to wrongdoing, people usually don't assume you're lying. When they think they've caught you, they don't usually keep investigating, and you've got a perfect explanation for why you've been acting strangely and looking guilty.
The disadvantage, of course, is that you're on the hook for whatever you confessed to, so you better be sure it's worth it to keep the greater crime concealed.
May be used by an undercover cop to keep from being exposed, or by a Justified Criminal to avoid punishment.
Different from a Plea Bargain in that the character is trying to keep their crimes concealed, not trying to strike a deal to avoid punishment.
In Real Life, this is one of the most common ways in which criminal trials are resolved. For instance, someone accused of murder may well confess to the crime of manslaughter/culpable homicide, or someone accused of dealing drugs may confess to possession but not to intent to supply. However, it is generally up to the prosecutor if they want to go with this - if they feel that allowing a murderer to confess to manslaughter would not be a just result, then they are within their rights to reject a plea of innocence and fight on. This trope is so common, in fact, that some criminal defense lawyers have said that they dread genuinely innocent clients - there is only one just result in their trials, whilst most of their clients are at least guilty of something, if not the exact charge on their indictment.
However, the fictional version confessing to a not only lesser but completely unrelated crime is significantly rarer in real life; typically when the authorities are interrogating a person they have some idea of what crime they actually suspect was committed.
- In the Ace Attorney manga, the murderer in the second case admits to setting the fire at Wolfe Manor because otherwise, Bobby, the defendant, would go free. Phoenix's defense had hinged on disproving that Bobby would not have willingly burned up his spider and spider book collection, so he's at a loss for words until he realizes that just as the arsonist set a timed ignition device, he also set a timed device to kill the victim and create an alibi. Afterward, Phoenix thanks Edgeworth for calling for a recess and bringing the witness to the stand, thus enabling him to find the truth.
- In the Ace Attorney anime, Furio Tigre admits to impersonating Phoenix Wright in court, but not to killing Glen Elg. Of course, the fact that he admitted to anything at all keeps him on the spot, and Wright is able to deduce his real crime anyway.
- JoJo's Bizarre Adventure: Akira in Part 4 is given three years for grand theft. This is after committing murder and attempting to kill Joseph Joestar. Granted, explaining the murder would require the judge to know what Stands are (they're Invisible to Normals). Akira gladly takes the jail time, because the alternative is Josuke and Okuyasu kicking his ass every day for the rest of his life.
- Spy Game: Nathan Muir spends most of the film using CIA resources to plan an unauthorized operation to rescue his protégé. When the CIA discovers he's been accessing satellite data, Muir admits to misusing agency resources... to research retirement properties.
- White Heat has Cody Jarrett confess to a hotel robbery in Illinois to escape suspicion of the train robbery at the start of the film. To put things into perspective, the train robbery had four fatalities and involved government payroll.
- Shattered Glass: When people start poking holes in Stephen Glass's made-up articles that he can no longer cover up, he contrives to make it seem like he was simply negligent in fact-checking. When more concrete evidence of his active deceit comes up, he again makes it seem like he was trying to hide his negligence and not his complete and total fabrication of his articles.
- In Breaker Morant, a soldier is accused of murdering a suspected spy, but confesses that, at the time, he'd been in the bed of a married woman. Turns out he had time for both.
- The Naked Gun: In 33 1/3, Frank is persuaded to come out of retirement to help with a case, but tries to conceal this from his wife Jane. When she finds evidence that he's returned to police work, he attempts to distract her with this trope:
Jane: You're lying! Now I know why Ed's been calling every half hour. You've been back on the case, haven't you?
Frank: No! I swear, it's another woman!
Jane: In your wildest dreams!
- An Invoked Trope in The Winslow Boy (theatre play and both films). The esteemed lawyer Sir Robert Morton is approached to defend a young boy accused of the theft of a postal order. Morton subjects Arthur Winslow to a merciless grilling during which he suggests that Arthur stole the postal order as a joke. However Arthur tearfully denies this, convincing Morton that he really is innocent, as a guilty person would have taken the opportunity to downplay his crime into a harmless prank.
- In the film adaptation of Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney, Redd White confesses to breaking and entering, but not to murdering Mia Fey or stealing evidence.
- In one of the novels based on the Paranoia RPG, a villain is reported for concealing a dangerous mutant power, but saw it coming and registered a different mutant power (chronic runny nose) first. The Computer bought it, and thus disbelieves the report because mutants with multiple powers are unheard of.
- In Robert A. Heinlein's If This Goes On, Lyle is advised to pretend to commit a lesser offense to help cover up his involvement in La Résistance. He's further told that faithfully adhering to all of the regime's many laws is unusual enough to get the regime's attention, so he should "never try to pretend lily-white innocence". Lyle leaves evidence of gambling, gets "caught" and lectured on it, and then is let go.
- Please Don't Tell My Parents I'm a Supervillain: Penny decides to tell her parents she is sneaking out to go on a date when in fact she is sneaking out to commit crimes in her secret identity as a supervillain.
- The Nero Wolfe novel The Second Confession features a man confessing to an accidental hit-and-run to avoid being suspected for actually intending to kill the victim with the car.
- A similar method is used in the Perry Mason book The Case of the Cautious Coquette - a murderer tries to take credit for a hit-and-run to hide his role in ending his partner's life. Unfortunately for him, there was an eyewitness, who wrote down the actual hit-and-run's license plate.
- In The Count of Monte Cristo, the Count's cover story for Haydee's presence is that she is his Sex Slave, rather than the central piece in a decade long revenge-scheme. It also helps him to justify why a man of his standing isn't courting women. Yes, at the time it was better to be seen as keeping a Sex Slave rather than be assumed Gay or Impotent....
- Invoked and subverted in the climax the fifth Spy School novel by Stuart Gibbs. CIA trainee Ben Ripley and his friends have been framed for trying to kill the President by a treacherous member of the joint chiefs of staff (who was actually just trying to steal the nuclear launch codes) and when all of them are cornered by Pentagon guard, Ben realties that protesting his innocence will just sound like a bbad case of You Have to Believe Me!. So instead, he confesses to setting off the bomb, but explains that it was to steal the launch codes rather than to kill the President, and claims that he was working for the actual bomber. Said bomber tries to deny this, but the guards agree that it does seem more likely that he was the true culprit rather than a teenager acting alone (and who seemed to be confessing to them) and arrest that guy and his accomplice, with their interrogations quickly providing the evidence to exonerate Ben.
- The Secret Of Santa Vittoria: After hiding over a million bottles of their rare and prized wine from the Germans. The villagers then deliberately hide a smaller quantity of wine (300,000 bottles) elsewhere, pretend to hide it and then give up to placate the Germans and keep them from assuming there's more wine to take. It works, but only for a while.
- Breaking Bad:
- In the first season, Skyler confronts Walt about his odd behavior and why he is consorting with a drug dealer. Walt "confesses" that he's been buying marijuana from Jesse.
Jesse: And why'd you go and tell her I was selling you weed?
Walt: Because somehow it seemed preferable to admitting that I cook crystal meth and killed a man.
- Later on, when Walt has to explain all the money he's been making to his DEA brother-in-law Hank, he (actually his wife Skyler) says he earned it from counting cards.
- Even more later on, Skyler nearly confesses to Marie that Walt is a drug dealer, only for Marie to pick up Walt's early conversation that Skyler is depressed due to Ted's accident. Skyler just goes along with that. If she did confess to Marie then and there, LOTS of lives would have been saved.
- In the first season, Skyler confronts Walt about his odd behavior and why he is consorting with a drug dealer. Walt "confesses" that he's been buying marijuana from Jesse.
- Better Call Saul:
Lalo: "South wall's going to look beautiful."
- In "Cobbler", Jimmy invokes this when representing Daniel. Daniel has been stealing drugs from his workplace and selling them to Nacho. He quickly gets robbed, and is foolish enough to call the cops, who very quickly spot enough holes in his story that it's clear something's going on. Jimmy intervenes by making Daniel 'confess' to selling fetish videos of him sitting in pies and crying. All this would be perfectly legal but few people would openly admit it to the police.
- In "Magic Man," Gus has to do damage control after Werner is tricked into revealing some details of his secret construction project. He confesses that Werner was directing the construction of a new chiller, when he learned about the drug business and stole some product. Gus claims he'd tried to hide the theft to conceal his own failure. Juan Bolso is pacified, but Lalo doesn't buy it for a second.
- The Sopranos: When Tony Soprano is asked point-blank by his daughter whether he's a Mafia boss, he denies it, but then grudgingly admits that his business does include some illegal gambling.
- Star Trek: Deep Space Nine:
- Odo first met Major Kira when investigating her for the murder of a Bajoran shopkeeper. Eventually she is forced to give her alibi: She could not have committed the crime because she is actually a member of La Résistance and was busy planting a bomb on a different part of the station at the time. It is not until years later that Odo discovers the truth: She actually did murder the man, who was a Cardassian collaborator; the bomb was set by an associate. (This is playing with the trope a bit, as planting the bomb is actually the more serious crime, but it is also not the one Odo is investigating. He could still turn her in for the bombing, but she plays on his sympathies to convince him not to.)
- Quark tries to holo-record Major Kira for a holosuite porn program; when he's spotted, he lies that he's putting together a battle simulator with the DS9 crew (still illegal, but less icky). Kira isn't fooled for a moment.
- Dexter: When finally confronted about his mysterious disappearances at night by his girlfriend, he told the truth. She accused him of doing drugs and he admitted to having an addiction. He does have an addiction - just to murder, not drugs. This all came to light when Dexter admitted to knocking out her ex and injecting him with heroin in order to protect her and her kids. She immediately latched onto the fact that he knows how to cook heroin.
- Frequently used on Lie to Me. Justified in that Cal and his team can always tell if you're lying, or guilty, or ashamed — but not what you're lying, guilty, or ashamed about. This trope may be the only way to throw them off your trail.
- In one episode of Frasier, the gang travels to Canada in a Winnebago, unaware that Daphne isn't allowed to leave the country without her green card. Frasier and Niles act as one would expect from them, making customs suspicious until Martin "confesses" that his dog Eddie doesn't have a proper pet ID.
- Frequently used in Burn Notice to maintain cover identities. In one memorable case, a drug dealer finds out Michael has been making phone calls to his girlfriend (actually, the girl he's stalking, who's an undercover DEA agent). The dealer assumes they're sleeping together and plans to kill her, until Michael "confesses" that he was asking around about the man because he wanted to do business with him. Thus confessing a minor violation of privacy to cover up a Secret Relationship which was itself a lie to cover up her being a cop.
- On Boardwalk Empire, Eli and Van Alden are caught trying to steal Capone's ledgers to give to the FBI; the only plausible cover they can come up with is that they were trying to steal Capone's money. (This is still a "lesser" crime but not by much; Capone eventually sees through the lie but it's questionable whether he would have let them live either way.)
- Invoked on an episode of CSI: NY. Aiden accuses their suspect of slamming the Victim of the Week's head in his pizza oven (what killed him; they can't prove the suspect was the actual person who did it, since none of the witnesses co-operated), but then bluffs him by also accusing him of then chasing the suspect and stabbing him to death (which they know didn't happen). Thus the suspect assumes his attack didn't kill the suspect and accidentally implicates himself thinking he's invoking this trope.
- On Rookie Blue the cops bust a marijuana grow house and catch a teenager trying to escape out the back. The guy freely confesses to being in the house to buy weed and even admits that he is a small time weed dealer. The cops assume that he is just a screwed up kid, go easy on him and try to get him some help. Just as he is about to walk out the door, the cops figure out that he is the mastermind behind the operation and he shot and killed his partner shortly before the cops arrived. Because he confessed so quickly and cooperated with the cops, he stopped being a problem for them and they did not take a second look at him until it was almost too late.
- On Graceland Briggs realizes that his FBI superiors have become suspicious of him so he sets things up so it is discovered that he is a recovering heroin addict. He knows that his bosses will be reluctant to act on this since it could prove to be extremely embarrassing to the FBI and in the meantime he has the time to proceed with his extremely illegal plan to set up a Mob War that will force a notorious cartel assassin into the open.
- On The Shield, Claudette demands an explanation from Ronnie about why Shane tried to kill him and Vic. Ronnie confesses that they were doing an off-books investigation into Lem's murder (leaving out the crimes they committed in the process), that they found out Shane did it (but leaving out that he did it to cover up all their crimes), and that they had arranged a meeting with Lem the night he was killed (but he claims that they did it to convince him to turn himself in).
- On one episode of Bones, they've got the suspect, but he isn't talking. Until Sweet figures out that he also committed the rape they uncovered during their murder investigation. Booth tells Sweet that even if the suspect were to confess right then and there, they wouldn't be able to charge him with both crimes. So the perp, seeing his way out admits to the rape, and is promptly told he just confessed to murder. When the perp calls them out on lying, it's pointed out to him that the FBI can only charge him with the murder, the rape falls to a different jurisdiction.
Booth: DC Police will charge you for that.
- In the premiere of Turn, Abe confesses to the British authorities that he has been involved in some low level smuggling (trading cabbages for cloth) during the few days that he was absent from his farm. While smuggling is a fairly serious crime, Abe's family connections will protect him from any real punishment. This is a ploy to hide the real reason why he was away for so long: he was intercepted by soldiers from the rebel Continental Army and an old friend of his tried to recruit him to spy on the British. In a twist, Abe's father does not believe the story but instead assumes that Abe is using this trope to hide his involvement in the murder of a British officer.
- A memorable incident in Castle where a suspect alibis out on account of he was having sex with the victim's wife at the time. (Technically adultery isn't a crime in the United States, but it's still normally a motive for murder rather than an alibi.)
- Invoked on Benson. One episode has a businessman from out of state (whose father is an old friend of the Governor's) try to negotiate a deal with the state. He goes out on a date with Denise and tries to have his way with her. Since he has good lawyers (he's done this before and always gotten off), the staff decides to pretend Denise was murdered and try casting suspicion on the businessman. (The production is so over the top, words will not do it justice.) It works and he confesses to attempting to rape Denise, but when he fails to repent, his father fires him.
- Suits: When Louis discovers Mike's transcript contains a grade he could not have legitimately earned at Harvard Law, Mike confesses to falsifying the grade to avoid telling Louis the truth, that he never actually attended law school.
- In The Good Wife Kalinda has her pet hacker show her how to tamper with email metadata in order to get Cary's drug conviction overturned. When they're interviewed by an investigator from the prosecutor's office dealing with the ramifications of the invented Brady violation (it could send a sleazy but technically innocent Chicago police detective to jail for falsifying evidence), they claim that the hacker was making a couple of Kalinda's parking tickets go away. The investigator doesn't buy it.
- One episode of Death in Paradise has a murderer confess to murder after having set up things so that the murder confessed to seems like attempted murder upon further investigation on account of the victim already being dead at the time (lesser crime being a relative matter — attempted murder is a serious crime liable to get you several years in prison, but it's not quite as serious in sentencing as a successful murder).
- In 24, Jack Bauer tortures his own brother Graeme after discovering he was involved in the terrorist events of the day. His brother admits to being behind the assassination of ex-President David Palmer and to several attempts on Jacks' own life, and admits that the "terrorists of the day" more or less stole from and double-crossed his company to carry out their campaign. After Jack leaves, though, their father- revealed to be the Big Bad of the season- talks to Graeme and asks why he gave up that much, and Graeme admits that he had to tell Jack something to get him to stop the torture- no matter how bad the stuff he told Jack was, it was really just the tip of the iceberg as both of them are involved in serious, far-reaching criminal conspiracies and thus his dad murders him before he can tell Jack anything else.
- In Game of Thrones, Ned Stark returns home from Robert's Rebellion with a baby boy, Jon Snow, who he presents as his own illegitimate son that he fathered with another woman while married to his wife, Catelyn. Ned raises Jon as his son alongside his trueborn offspring at Winterfell and refuses to talk about Jons mother, straining his marriage to Catelyn and leading to Jon becoming Catelyn's Unfavorite. However, Ned's cover story was far preferable to revealing the truth: Jon is Ned's nephew, not his illegitimate son. Jon (born Aegon Targaryen) is the Trueborn son of Neds sister Lyanna Stark and Prince Rhaegar Targaryen, who was just slaughtered — along with most of the known Targaryen line (save for a few) — during Robert's Rebellion and the rightful heir to the Iron Throne. The dying Lyanna asks Ned to keep her son safe. Out of love for Lyanna and Jon, Ned spends the rest of his life protecting Jon, raising and loving him as his own son, and claims him as his own illegitimate child to save him from the wrath of Robert Baratheon as Robert would have killed Jon if he knew the truth due to his hatred of the Targaryens. Ned pretends to be an unfaithful spouse, accepting the stain on his honour, while he was actually committing treason against Robert — all to protect his sister's only child.
- Rome. Evander is kidnapped and tortured by Pullo and Octavian until he confesses to sleeping with Vorenus' wife. Pullo is prepared to kill Evander on the spot, but Octavian stops him, realising that his ready confession is covering for something else. He's fathered a child by her, who would be killed if Vorenus found out.
- In one episode of NCIS, the team interviews a Smug Snake trust fund brat for the murder of a Marine officer, but the suspect is cleared when a paparazzi video surfaces of him going into a hotel with a senator's underage daughter at the time of the murder. Ziva promptly arrests him for statutory rape to get him back for being a dickhead.
- Battlestar Galactica (2003): The first-season episode "Litmus" ends with a Galactica enlisted man confessing to criminal negligence in a Cylon suicide-bombing on Galactica. He's dishonorably discharged and imprisoned, but no one is implicated as a Cylon collaborator, which was what the tribunal was after. Tyrol comes clean to Commander Adama that the crewman was really covering for him and Boomer, who were continuing their Secret Relationship against direct orders from Colonel Tigh, but Adama lets the verdict stand: the crewman is now provably guilty of perjury, and forcing Tyrol to go back to work knowing an innocent man ruined his career for him is punishment enough. Tyrol and Boomer have a nasty breakup immediately afterwards.
- In The Flash (2014), Harrison Wells (who is actually Eobard Thawne impersonating the real Wells) admits to ignoring a warning that his Particle Accelerator would send a destructive wave of dark matter across Central City, but not that he designed it to do so on purpose.
- In Prison Break, Don Self finds out that The Company knows he's been prying into their affairs, but The Company doesn't know that he knows. They'll kill him if they find out what he's uncovered, so he does some further digging in order to find something else that isn't worth killing him over. The way he really sells it, though, is he doesn't wait for them to confront him. Instead he goes straight to The General and confronts him with multiple accusations which he pretends he thinks are much more potentially damaging than they really are. He preempts a Have You Told Anyone Else? by telling The General he's taken precautions in the event that he's killed. The General tells Self that he's actually recruited people who tried something like this, but Self doesn't go for it.
- In an episode of Elementary, a man confesses to Holmes and Bell that he's stolen several cell phones. He didn't have much of a choice, as they could see the phones on a table the moment he answered his door, but it's enough for them to incorrectly dismiss him as a murder suspect on the grounds that's he too stupid to pull it off.
- Columbo: In "Columbo and the Murder of a Rock Star", the murderer arranges for a photo of him speeding to be taken by a speed camera at the time the murder was being committed. On showing this photo to Columbo, he facetiously says he cannot see any way out of this and confesses to speeding and says he will pay the fine. Needless to say, Columbo is not satisfied.
- Inverted in the song Long Black Veil. The narrator is executed for a murder he didn't commit, because he refused to say where he was during the crime. He'd been in the arms of his best friend's wife.
- Similarly inverted in Over The Hills And Far Away; the man is convicted of armed robbery because his pistol was found at the crime scene and he had no alibi, because he'd been sleeping with his best friend's wife at the time.
- In "I Shot The Sherrif" the protagonist confesses the murder of the sherrif, but claims he didn't shoot his deputy. Confessing the murder of the official higher in ranking instead of the lower one will no doubt result in a stronger sentence if he is ever caught.
- This happens a lot in Ace Attorney, mainly because every case involves murder revolving around other events and crimes.
- In Trials and Tribulations, you manage to save your defendant from a conviction for grand larceny on the first day of his trial, by discovering that the "Ace Detective" Luke Atmey, who had supposedly been on your client's Gentleman Thief persona for years, actually did it. The suspect happily admits that yes, they did it! Victory, right? Wrong! Your defendant is promptly accused of murder, and you have to prove him innocent of that crime, despite the fact that you just proved he doesn't have an alibi for it, because he wasn't off committing grand larceny, Turns out Luke Atmey faked the theft he confessed to on the first day, then committed the murder, confident that he could confess to the theft and therefore have an alibi for the murder, getting off scot-free. In the end, your client receives no jail time for the thefts he actually did commit besides the one he was tried for, due to the fact that he was acquitted for that particular one, and double jeopardy protects him. But he's such a sweetheart that it's hard to feel like he should be in prison at all.
- In Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney, the true killer of case 2 admits to trespassing, burglary and property damage when they say they broke into the murder victim's office to try and steal a medical chart. By that time the killer had already admitted that she only married a mob boss's son for his money, and that the chart she was trying to get proved she knew said boss's son's life was in major danger, thus she was trying to protect her life. They also, later in the case, admit that she threatened someone with a gun. They do all this because if they did not admit to any of these smaller crimes, then it would mean they were guilty of a much bigger crime: murder.
- In the second case of the first Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney game, the murderer, who claims to have witnessed the murder through a window, trips up and reveals details he shouldn't have been able to see through a window. When called on this, he makes up a story about planting surveillance devices in the murder scene in order to spy on the victim. Although incidentally, said murderer was spying on the victim with a wiretap, however in reality it was his employee who had actually been to the offices to place the wiretap on the phone. He makes up that he was the one who placed it in order to justify why he knew details about the scene of the murder, aka the offices, that he shouldn't have known unless he had been to said offices before.
- In the fourth game, when Phoenix has proven that a witness, Valant, tampered with the crime scene and tried to throw off the time of death, he admits to everything he did, yet continues to deny that he killed anyone. For good reason, as he didn't; Magnifi wasnt murdered.
- In the same case, Vera is proven to have been illegally making forgeries (granted, without knowing it was breaking the law) and she even confesses as such when they are accused of murdering their own father.
- The real murderer in case 5 of game one, Chief Gant, confesses to having forged and withheld evidence, and tampering with the crime scene all to blackmail the sister of the apparent person who took the victim's life in the SL-9 Incident when he comes under fire for the fact that he had withheld that he was the first to find the body. He unknowingly confessed to the murder in a second-hand way itself by doing this.
- In the third case of Dual Destinies, the true killer, Aristotle Means, tries to claim to have helped Juniper Woods cover up her crime. Not only is the culprit guilty, but as Athena points out, the person in question is actually responsible for Juniper coming under suspicion in the first place.
- The killer of the third case of Dai Gyakuten Saiban 2 confesses to being an accomplice to another character's murder plan, and demands the trial end in a Not Guilty verdict for the defendant. Them being so insistent on a quick end to the trial makes Ryunosuke very suspicious though, and he gets the verdict postponed so they can hear one more testimony. Sure enough, it reveals they really murdered the victim personally.
- The Simpsons: In "Mr. Plow", Homer crashes his car. Fortunately, it's insured, but the agent wants to know exactly what kind of business Moe's is. Not wanting to admit he'd been drinking, but wondering what else is open late at night, Homer claims it's a porn shop, where he was buying pornography.
- Gravity Falls, Robbie tries to win Wendy back by offering her a piece of music he said he composed. Dipper finds out that the music had a subliminal message that could have influenced Wendy. When confronted about this, Robbie admits he didn't actually make the song. Either way, Wendy cuts ties with him for good.