A misdeed has occurred, and one character - usually a protagonist - is assumed to be the culprit, either because they have a history of being a troublemaker, or simply because they were the first to find the body - the second person on the scene of the crime saw them standing next to the victim and naturally assumed that they did it. The problem is that the accused character is innocent. While the character's closest friends and relatives may believe their innocence, everyone else will believe they're guilty. The "evidence" can sometimes be wafer thin and lacking coherence, such as a motive. Arguments in their defense tend to be ignored - the other characters will still believe they did it. The only way everyone will be convinced that the accused isn't guilty is with the strongest evidence of all: exposing the true culprit.
And yet this is not a Kangaroo Court - the court simply follows its own inscrutable train of thought, and will clear your name once it becomes apparent that the prosecution was trying to frame you. It's just that the standards for proof are apparently - and hopefully - very different from real life.
Exaggerated examples of this trope ("You've presented an iron-clad alibi proving Bob couldn't possibly have committed the crime. But unless you find the actual perpetrator for us, we're gonna convict Bob anyway.") are also examples of the logical fallacy Shifting the Burden of Proof. Clear My Name, Clear Their Name, and The Perry Mason Method frequently overlap with this. Compare Not Me This Time. Compare Suspect Existence Failure, which is another trope that uses bulletproof evidence for a suspect's innocence.
Due to the nature of this trope, every single example contains spoilers, so all of them will be unmarked. You Have Been Warned.
- Moriarty the Patriot: In the "Study in S" arc, the police are led to believe that Holmes is a murderer so that he will be compelled to find the true killer in order to prove himself innocent.
- Yu-Gi-Oh! 5D's: Sector Security arrests Jack Atlas because someone with the same Duel Runner model ran other Turbo Duelists off the road, injuring them. Everyone only gets convinced of his innocence once they see both the real Jack and the imposter riding their Duel Runners at the same time, showing that the imposter was responsible for the crashes.
- Simple Samosa: In the "Samosa Mama" episode, Samosa is the target suspect of kidnapping but never actually committed the misdeed. The only people who believe he's innocent are his friends, one of whom (specifically Vada) goes to locate the actual "perpetrator,"note Special Samosa, and brings him to the courtroom right as Samosa is about to be wrongfully punished over it.
- Captain America: Civil War: Security footage implicates Bucky Barnes for a bombing in Vienna, and he only gets proven innocent once evidence is discovered that he was framed by Zemo, the real mastermind behind the terrorist attack.
- Gattaca: Vincent is suspected of murdering his mission director until another party is found to be the culprit.
- Scooby-Doo! The Mystery Begins: The gang are accused of intentionally disrupting the school pep-rally and of vandalizing it during their late-night break-in. Though they're innocent, they're suspended and then expelled for it, forcing them to investigate and find the real culprit. After they catch their principal in disguise as Specter and he gets arrested, they're finally allowed back in the school.
- The Adventures of Tom Sawyer: Muff Potter is accused of the murder of Dr. Robinson—an allegation he doesn't contest because he blacked out drunk at the crime scene and woke up with a knife in his hand. After his arrest, no one in town doubts that he did it. When he is about to be sentenced to death, Tom Sawyer steps out at the trial because he and Huckleberry Finn witnessed Injun Joe commit the act and then frame Muff. Joe, who is present, flees from the courtroom, leading to all charges against Muff be dropped.
- In the Guardians Of Gahoole spin-off series Wolves Of The Beyond book "Shadow Wolf", Faolan gets accused of murdering a pup he cared for, which only gets accelerated when framed evidence is found. It gets to the point where his entire pack is about to brutally slaughter him as punishment...until they're told that the real murderer is Heep, the very same wolf that framed Faolan.
- Little Men: Nat is accused of theft. He's the only suspect and assumed guilty because for two reasons: he was the only one besides the victim who knew where the money was, and he has a history of lying to make himself look better, which he's trying to overcome). The other boys treat him like dirt until the true thief reveals himself.
- In Precious And The Monkeys, two of Precious's classmates have their lunch stolen. They assume it was their other classmate Poloko, since he's fat and they assume being fat means being a Big Eater. Precious, however, then sees that it was some monkeys that stole them and when she proves it was the monkeys, the two classmates immediately apologize to Poloko.
- The Thrawn Trilogy: Talon Karrde is suspected of hiring Imperials that attacked a smuggler meeting because data was planted in his ship implicating him. Once Niles Ferrier says the name of the Imperial Lieutenant despite nobody mentioning it, everyone realizes that Niles was actually responsible, proving Karrde's innocence.
- Beyond Belief: Fact or Fiction: In the "Positive I.D." episode, a reporter goes to the local police precinct to find a story, only to be identified as a liquor store robber, and he's even shown footage of him holding the cashier at gunpoint. After spending several hours in lockup, where he doubts his own innocence, he's freed and shown the real robber who looks like him. He manages to dig up information on the robber, and turns out they are twin brothers given up for adoption. While the reporter was adopted by a loving couple, his brother through different foster homes, being abused all the while, until he aged out of the system.
- Doctor Who: In "Black Orchid", the Doctor is wrongfully accused of murder. He asks why he would have killed someone that he had only just met... but these clever tricks don't work of course.
- Drake & Josh: In the episode "Honor Council", Drake is accused of moving Mrs. Hayfer's car into her classroom. Despite the question of how he would've done it going unanswered, people become more and more convinced that he was responsible, and even his stepbrother Josh, who was initially on his side, starts to believe he did it. It's only by getting Josh's rival Mindy Crenshaw to confess to the crime after being tipped off by Megan that he manages to clear his name.
- The Flash: Barry's father Henry Allen is in jail for Barry's mother's murder. He was found at the scene of the crime covered in her blood with his fingerprints on the murder weapon (because he was trying to save her life) and Barry's witness testimony that "the room filled with lightning and the man in the lightning killed my mother" isn't considered credible. As an adult, Barry learns that the real killer is Eobard Thawne aka Reverse Flash aka Harrison Wells, but still lacks the evidence to clear his father's name. When Thawne dies, he leaves a taped confession in his video will so that Henry will finally be freed.
- Game of Thrones: Cersei is completely convinced that Tyrion poisoned Joffrey, her son. Once Olenna confesses to Jaime that she killed Joffrey and Jaime tells his sister, Cersei finally realizes Tyrion is innocent.
- House of Anubis:
- In late season 3, Eddie has a vision that warns him of one of his friends pulling a FaceHeel Turn. KT ends up being accused as the culprit thanks to a fingerprint-scanner Fabian had, and this causes the rest of Sibuna to isolate and bully her. She was innocent, but no matter what she did she couldn't get them to believe it wasn't her. She was only proven innocent, and thus trusted again, once everyone realized the actual traitor was Patricia, albeit with her soul stolen. It was a bit late by that point though, as KT almost ditched them, and Fabian ended up getting turned soon after.
- In "The Touchstone of Ra", the touchstone gets stolen from the museum and put into Eddie's bag. The freshman Dexter is Mistaken for Thief, because he was interested in the touchstone and even fell asleep in the same room as it. The only person willing to believe his innocence is Patricia, but nobody else trusts him until it's discovered that the true culprit was Sophia.
- One episode of Law & Order: SVU has Stabler learn that a man he'd arrested years ago was innocent of the crime when he (Stabler) stumbles across the real killer during a different investigation. A guest cop throws the guilty man out a window before the innocent man can be exonerated. A later episode confirms that he's still in jail because Stabler was unable to find hard evidence or get a confession proving his innocence.
- Psych: In the episode Dead Bear Walking, Shawn is able to prove that the bear did not kill it's handler. However, Cody Blair (the county director of animal control) decides that the execution will still happen unless he and Gus find the true culprit within 12 hours.
- Sharpe: In "Sharpe's Revenge", Richard is accused of stealing Napoleon's treasure chests, killing and mutilating its guards. The real thieves had sent a written testimony that he did it. It doesn't really seem to matter how he was supposed to have known this treasure even existed, let alone where and when to intercept it, or where he was able to hide a huge stash of coins, with or without accomplices. Okay, the prosecution does claim that he had recently lost all his money, providing a motive - but that hadn't happened yet at the time the crime took place.
- Among Us: If there's no hard evidence to prove someone's a crewmate, no one will believe anyone isn't an imposter until the game ends, which always reveals who the crewmates and imposters are.
- Divinity: Original Sin II: In a murder mystery Sidequest, the Magisters don't believe any evidence of their prime suspect's innocence until you identify the real killer. Subverted when they still don't call off the hunt, insisting that the original suspect must be guilty of something, which requires you to smuggle the man out of town to keep him alive.
- Super Mario Sunshine: The people of Delfino Harbor believe that Mario is the one who polluted their archipelago with insidious paint (despite the fact that Mario looks very different from the sinister-looking Shadow Mario and had only arrived in Delfino minutes before being arrested). The court of Delfino Harbor decide that Mario is to be held responsible for the paint until the actual criminal is captured.
- Ace Attorney: While this is not an actual rule in this universe's law system, the games will almost always require you to continue until the actual killer is caught even if you've proven your client's innocence in a bit of Gameplay and Story Segregation. However, in most cases, continuing the trial until the real criminal is caught is a natural consequence of the protagonist being unable to decisively prove their client innocent until they've explained and proven the entire crime down to the last detail, which includes proving who actually did it.
- "Turnabout Samurai" from the first game featured the first major instance of this in the series. Phoenix proves beyond a reasonable doubt that his client is innocent by the end of the case's second day (due to proving that the real crime scene was somewhere Will Powers was unable to reach at the time of the murder, even if he hadn't been drugged with sleeping pills), but the trial continues for another day as Phoenix is tasked with finding the real culprit.
- Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney Trials and Tribulations: In the final case, it's possible for Iris to get declared guilty if the player gets a game over due to penalties, even after Phoenix proves that only Maya or Godot could've killed Elise Deauxnim, who was revealed to actually be Misty Fey. Iris only gets a "Not Guilty" verdict after Godot is exposed as the murderer.
- Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney: Case 3 has Machi, a frail fourteen-year-old, being suspected of killing Romein LeTouse with a 45-caliber pistol, the recoil from which should be enough to dislocate the shoulder of a grown man, never mind a teenager. Even though this fact is enough to prove Machi didn't kill Romein, the court only gets convinced of Machi's innocence once Daryan's breakdown exposes him as the killer.
- Averted in the first case of Professor Layton vs. Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney; Phoenix gets an acquittal, but it's never definitively revealed who exactly beaned Aldente over the head. The final case, however, takes the trope in a weird direction: in what's supposed to be a witch trial, you eventually get everyone in court to accept the idea that witches and magic do not in fact exist, and later the supposed murder victim turns up alive, meaning none of the charges placed on the defendant have any basis at all. And yet, since the full truth hasn't come out yet, it's still possible to get her declared guilty and sentenced to death via Game Over. This even applies during the periods in which Layton, currently representing the prosecution, is presenting the evidence.
- Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney Dual Destinies: Averted in case 4. By the end of the case, the true culprit has not been identified, but it has been definitively proven that Solomon Starbuck could not possibly have killed Clay Terran, so the judge delivers his verdict of "Not Guilty". Granted, the evidence proving this immediately implicates Athena Cykes of the same crime, but this is not revealed until after the verdict is delivered.
- Also averted in the third case of The Great Ace Attorney Adventures, where Ryunosuke successfully presents an alternative suspect to Magnus McGilded using the evidence at hand. Even though the prosecution immediately accuses Magnus of tampering with the evidence, something Ryunosuke himself asks to be investigated, the judge delivers an acquittal, reasoning that the prosecution has nothing to back up their claims, and should accept full responsibility for this mishap even if they were telling the truth. It's later revealed in case 5 that Magnus actually was guilty and did tamper with the evidence, though by this point he's already been murdered.
- In the first case of Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc, Makoto Naegi is the first suspect. Because of the mechanics of a game over, Makoto gets voted out as the Blackened even after he's proven innocent. In fact, for the rest of the first and second games, the Player Character will be voted as the Blackened if you let your Influence Gauge run out by making mistakes, regardless of who is currently the suspect. This is because the goal of the class trials is to correctly identify the Blackened responsible for the murder, and if the Blackened is not convicted, everyone else will be executed.
- Parodied in the Awkward Zombie strip "Guilty Until Proven Guilty." The judge accepts that Athena's client couldn't have possibly committed the crime. However, since she did not bring up a possible suspect, the judge decides to declare Athena's client guilty anyway because "someone should go to jail."
- In El Goonish Shive, the Writer's Block is suspected to be the killer until the real killer is arrested.
- Averted in "AI Makes An Ace Attorney Trial." The Judge decides that the mystery behind Big Chungus' murder may never be solved, but nevertheless drops all charges against Kirby, the defendant.
- Family Guy: Everyone except Brian, who received a confession from the real killer, believes Peter killed Lois in "Stewie Kills Lois." This is because Peter admits he secretly wanted Lois dead after a fight, mentions taking out a life insurance policy on her right before she died, and photos of Lois being brutally murdered were discovered in his trash can. At his trial, Lois shows up alive and names Stewie her attacker, clearing Peter. Its later revealed that this never happened and it was all part of a simulation made by Stewie at the end of the second part.
- Futurama: In the "The Lesser of Two Evils" episode, Fry and Leela automatically assume Flexo stole a giant atom. The two of them are only convinced of Flex's innocence once the atom was shown inside Bender's compartment, showing that Bender was the real thief.
- The Looney Tunes Show: In "Spread Those Wings and Fly," Bugs Bunny accuses Yosemite Sam of stealing his TV and calls the cops, which Sam denies. Once Bugs sees Daffy Duck stealing stuff while sleepwalking, and discovers all the other things Daffy stole, Bugs realizes that Sam innocent. Bugs apologizes to Sam by giving Sam his replacement Nobel Prize.
- Martha Speaks: In the "Martha Takes the Cake" episode, someone takes a large bite out of Alice's birthday cake and swallows a candle along with it. Initially, Martha is suspected until Nelson coughs up the candle, proving him as the perpetrator.
- Rick and Morty: In "Close Rick-counters of the Rick Kind", the Rick we follow throughout the show (Rick C-137) is arrested by the Citadel of Ricks, accused of murdering other Ricks. His portal gun history seems to corroborate this charge, and in any case his refusal to have anything to do with the Citadel of Ricks makes him suspect among the others. He's only let off the hook when he escapes and tracks down the actual culprit.
- SpongeBob SquarePants: SpongeBob throws a peanut at Clamu to wake her up in "The Smoking Peanut." When Clamu awakens, she goes on a crying rampage, and SpongeBob believes throwing his peanut is what made her upset. After SpongeBob is interrogated by the police, they end up arresting Patrick instead of him, resulting in SpongeBob confessing about the thrown peanut. Nobody gets convinced of his or Patrick's innocence until a zookeeper shows up and announces that Mr. Krabs upset Clamu by stealing her pearl, which is revealed to actually be an egg because it hatched immediately after it was returned.
- Star Wars: The Clone Wars: Aside from her closest friends, all the characters believe Ahsoka Tano killed Letta Turmond, who was instructed by a Jedi to bomb the Jedi Temple. The characters also believe that Ahsoka is the mastermind behind the bombing. Once Anakin captures Barriss Offee in "The Wrong Jedi" and makes her confess that she was responsible for the crimes, everyone is finally convinced of Ahsoka's innocence.