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Convicted by Public Opinion

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Who cares what the court has to say? Justice is short for "just us"!

"Peter, you may have dodged your legal troubles, but things will get much worse. There is still the court of public opinion."

Usually when a person's guilt can't be proven (or has not yet been proven or disproven, without counting ridiculous technicalities) in a court of law, it is assumed that they are innocent. But in the court of public opinion, it tends to be the exact opposite. The public (or even the authorities) are convinced you're guilty; they just don't have enough hard evidence to prove your guilt. Now, this doesn't necessarily mean the person in question is guilty. It just means that they have already been tried and convicted by public opinion. The public can either be completely right or dead wrong (and are usually the latter, per the Rule of Drama).

Whenever someone is placed in the dock accused of "Crimes Against Humanity", you can be pretty sure this trope is in full effect. The same goes for rape because Rape Is a Special Kind of Evil.

If the public is particularly displeased with a juridical decision, they might take the matter into their own hands. See Witch Hunt and Vigilante Execution, although the public does not necessarily have to be unjust and violent. If the convicted is convinced that it is hopeless to appeal, he might as well become the monster they asked for. Guilty Until Someone Else Is Guilty may be the only way the public will be convinced of the person's innocence. And sometimes not even that stops it — the character might well get permanently blacklisted from their career.

Usually combined with Reformed, but Rejected. Compare Shamed by a Mob, Pariah Prisoner, and Pædo Hunt. See also Never Live It Down for the fan version. Insidious Rumor Mill is done to invoke this kind of reaction against someone to ostracize and isolate them.

This is sadly Truth in Television, but No Real Life Examples, Please! Though if you wish to read about that, The Other Wiki has articles on the court of public opinion and trial by media.


Examples:

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    Anime & Manga 
  • Death Note: Kira gets much of the "evidence" for his executions from reading about them online. At the end, there is mention that people will sometimes post things about another person in the hopes that Kira will take notice and kill them.

    Comic Books 
  • Birthright: When Mikey is whisked away to another world, his father Aaron is accused of having killed him because they were last seen together playing in the woods and there are no other witnesses. Even though there is no conclusive proof that incriminates him, Aaron is dragged through the dirt and the mud, his wife divorces him and their family disintegrates. When Mikey sees what happens in his home, this pushes him to do a Face–Heel Turn and side with the Big Bad to return home because he feels guilty his departure tore his loved ones apart.
  • Diabolik: One story had a character tried for the murder of her father and stealing a jewelled knife and acquitted for lack of evidence and a chance that Eva Kant (Diabolik's accomplice) could have done it while masked as her with Latex Perfection. But the public believes her guilty, and a Vigilante Man shoots her. Later the Vigilante Man is about to kill Diabolik for his many proven crimes... When he confesses that murder: according to him, Eva had decided to gift the knife to Diabolik (who liked it) and was stealing it while masked as that character when the father caught her and was about to attack her from behind, and Diabolik, who had guessed what Eva was doing and decided to cover her, killed him. In the end, it's not known if Diabolik had really done it or was just buying himself time, and the Vigilante Man is shown tormented by the possibility he murdered an innocent.
    • The very third issue of the series made strange use of this trope with Diabolik's own trial: Diabolik had done everything he was convicted for and then some, but at the time there was no evidence that Diabolik even existed, and it's made clear that Diabolik was convicted and sentenced to death purely because the public had already convicted him and wanted the King of Terror dead. This would end up saving Diabolik's life years later: in the issue Stop the Guillotine, an activist opposing the death sentence uses knowledge of this Kangaroo Court to try and get the trial annulled with the intention of personally get Diabolik convicted and sentenced to life in jail, and the attempt, while failed, kept Diabolik away from the guillotine long enough for Eva to break him out.
      • To make even more clear that Diabolik had been convicted on non-existent evidence, there's the matter of Walter Dorian, a man identical to Diabolik whose identity was being used by the King of Terror: after being arrested, Diabolik admitted having murdered him, but not only this happened in a foreign country (something that Diabolik didn't specify), but, as pointed out by the activist, it later emerged that Walter Dorian had survived the assassination attempt, and had been kept imprisoned on trumped-up charges by a military junta until he escaped in the chaos of a revolution. By the time of Stop the Guillotine, Diabolik had found out that Walter Dorian was still alive and killed him upon realizing that Dorian had killed two of his mentors.
  • Rocky: Lampshaded in one strip where Rocky is talking to some guests at a party about how he hopes he's never arrested for anything because even if he's found innocent and released, the public believes anyone accused of a crime is guilty, and them being released is just because they don't think the courts can do its job properly. As an example, he brings up a publisher he worked for decades earlier who he years later had heard was accused of owning child pornography. This immediately backfires as the guests start gossiping about Rocky being molested by his employer.
  • Vigilante: Leonard Kord is released after the real attacker confessed to the attack Leonard had spent years in prison for, but the public still considers him guilty of the attack and he gets attacked and his home surrounded by an angry mob preventing him from getting any work and ensuring he gets blamed for any "fights" where he tries to defend himself from his assailants. He's eventually murdered by the Electrocutioner for a crime he did not commit.

    Comic Strips 
  • A fairly early storyline in Pogo centered on Albert being accused of eating the Pup-Dog. One strip cut to a bunch of crotchety old lady... animals... on a porch talking about the news, all certain he was guilty. In the end, Albert was found innocent when the Pup-Dog showed up from wherever it was he'd gotten off to. Cut back to the old ladies on the porch, positively incensed that Albert "got away with it" and bemoaning the "travesty o' justice" that had occurred. Even though the "victim" was very much alive and well.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • The whole point of Absence of Malice, in which an innocent man's entire life is ruined because an anonymous tipster's claim that he's involved in a current murder case gets published in the newspapers.
  • Fury had a man arrested because "it seems he knows more than he lets on" about a kidnapping. Gossip Evolution inflates it into everyone "knowing" he's the kidnapper, forming a Lynch mob, and burning down his prison. He barely escapes and is definitely not happy...
  • While this trope held true for Yanni Yogi in his appearance in Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney, the movie showed even more how hated he was after getting a Not Guilty verdict. When the judge gives his ruling, everyone in the courtroom buzzes angrily, instead of applauding or cheering him on. The very next scene shows him going home to find his house plastered in papers that call him a murderer and demand that he move out. The harassment gets to be so bad that his wife is Driven to Suicide.
  • In Ryan's Daughter, when revolutionary Tim O'Leary is arrested by the British on a tip from Tom Ryan, the villagers of Kirrary are convinced that the one who tipped off the British is Ryan's daughter Rosy, whom they know to be having an extramarital affair with the local British CO, Major Doryan, and whose house is just downhill from the army base. They show up at the schoolhouse where she lives with her husband, declare that she has been found guilty, and strip her of her clothes and shave her head, all while Tom is too frightened for his own life to admit the truth.
  • In Secret Window, when Mort Rainey is eventually revealed to be the killer, Sheriff Dave Newsome interrupts Mort's nonchalant casual conversation and bluntly says in a matter of fact tone something to the effect of "Both you and I know what you did. We can't find the bodies, but we'll find the bodies and we'll link you to them. And eventually, put you away." And of course, since he's a split personality murderer, Mort was completely confused by the sheriff's out-of-nowhere comment. Also, the locals are completely freaked out by him. So much so the sheriff wanted him to stop coming into town at certain parts of the day. The implications are strongly granted, but the authorities still never found the bodies.
  • Discussed in Sin City where the powerful Roarke family can get enough public approval to not only get away with crimes, but the citizens of Basin will gladly put an innocent man behind bars before you can say Crapsack World award.
  • In Spider-Man: No Way Home, Peter Parker manages to avoid criminal charges after his Frame-Up by Mysterio, but half the country is still convinced he's a murderer (thanks in no small part to J. Jonah Jameson), with protesters and counter-protesters assembling outside his high school in the morning and people throwing bricks through his apartment, forcing him and Aunt May to move in with Happy. The breaking point that leads Peter to seek a way to erase everyone's knowledge of his identity comes not from a villain's Evil Plan, but from MIT, who explicitly rejected him and his friends for their connection to Spider-Man and his controversy.
  • Used in the film Stand by Me. Chris Chambers admits to stealing the milk money but was still irritated (though not terribly surprised) by the fact that people automatically assumed he took it solely because of who he was. What really hurt him, though, was that the teacher he returned it to took advantage of that fact and kept the money for herself.

    Music 
  • The Mitch Benn song "He Don't Look Right":
    Somebody's dead or disappeared so,
    The papers fix on the local weirdo.
    Pick up on every eccentricity,
    Don't mean a thing but it's good publicity.
    Who cares what happens in a court of law,
    When he's found guilty in the press before?
  • In Act Two of The Protomen, Dr. Light is framed by Wily for his beloved Emily's death. Wily himself remarks that this accusation, "whether truth or lies, gets said all the same" and will shape the public's view of the man. The court declares Light to be not guilty (not that that stops him from beating himself up about it) and yet Light is lead out of the courthouse through a horde of enraged citizens, all baying for his blood. This is what drives Light into exile, and paves the way for Wily to set up his totalitarian regime.
  • Richard Marx's "Hazard" is about the singer's character being accused of the murder of his girlfriend Mary simply by his association with the woman and his appearance alone.

    Web Original 
  • FreedomToons: "Biden v. Kavanaugh" presents the sexual assault allegations against both as being tried in a literal courtroom of public opinion, with mainstream media conglomerates as the Joker Jury. Unsurprisingly, they receive very different treatments.
    Dr. Mac: [holding up picture] Mr. Kavanaugh, did you, or did you not, make this angry face after being called a rapist 60 times?
    Brett Kavanaugh: Well, yes, but...
    Dr. Mac: I rest my case!
  • When the Internet Historian discusses the "Balloon Boy" incident that was written off as a hoax, he brings this up as a valid defense of Richard Heene, who he now believes was genuinely innocent. He points out how since the public had so unswervingly decided it was a hoax that any jury would be stacked against him, and that Heene's wife was in danger of being deported if the charges went federal, thus Heene only confessed and pleaded guilty because it was the least nasty tine of the Morton's Fork he found himself in.

    Western Animation 
  • The Beetlejuice cartoon had this happen to Beetlejuice himself, accused of scamming the city for donations. The donations were stolen, but this was a rare time when he was being honest. Naturally, when public opinion was said to turn against him, it took the form of a huge angry monster. When Beetlejuice tried proclaiming his innocence, Lydia reminded him that when it's public opinion, "facts don't matter" to it. In fact, this instance is almost a subversion, since Beetlejuice has already pulled so much crap (and, in fact, he originally intended to scam the city) in the Neitherworld that it's a lot easier to see just why the public automatically thinks he's guilty.
  • Monkey Dust's Paedofinder General sketch is a parody of this.
    "By the power invested in me by prurient wishful thinking, I pronounce you guilty- of PAEDOPHILIA!"
    "By the power invested in me by a text vote on Sky news, I find you guilty- of PAEDOPHILIA!"
    "By the power invested in me by some bloke I met in a pub, who knew for definite, I find your sort GUILTY of PAEDOPHILIA!"
  • On Rick and Morty when Morty is found innocent of all charges after going on a Death Crystal tech-fueled bully murder spree, a particularly unflattering caricature of Nancy Grace from CNN outright declares that the only thing that matters in America is what the general public thinks of people accused of crimes:
    BREAKING NEWS: MORTY SMITH: AMERICAN MONSTER
    Nancy Grace: Well, I, for one, will not be accepting this verdict. And this little monster may think he's gotten away, but there is something called the Court of Public Opinion that still has final say in this country. Oh, I guess he's coming out of the courthouse now. Let's go live to that!
  • Providing the page image is The Simpsons episode "Homer: Bad Man", which has Homer being accused of sexual harassment. The entire country decided he was guilty, based on nothing more than hearsay and an extremely biased — and clearly doctored — news segment. The episode was meant as a satire of the current state of the media — which, sadly, hasn't improved since the episode first aired (in 1994!).
    Woman on Talk Show: I don't know Homer Simpson. I never met Homer Simpson or had any contact with him, but... [hysterical crying] I'm sorry, I can't go on.
    Talk Show Host: That's okay. Your tears say more than real evidence ever could.
At the end of the episode, Groundskeeper Willie proves Homer innocent with video evidence, and after some Unreadably Fast Text retracting their allegations against him (as part of a Long List of retractions), the media immediately proceeds to whip up another frenzy against Willie, painting him like a perverted voyeur who nobody in Springfield is safe from, which even Homer himself buys into.
Homer: Ohhhh, that man is sick!
Marge: Groundskeeper Willie saved you, Homer.
Homer: But listen to the music! He's evil!
Marge: Hasn't this experience taught you that you can't believe everything you hear?
Homer: Marge, my friend... I haven't learned a thing.
  • South Park: When the heads of a boy scout group were taken to court for discriminating against gays, the judge, when about to announce the verdict, said it was based on public opinion.


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