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Let Off by the Detective

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"After all, Watson," said Holmes, reaching up his hand for his clay pipe, "I am not retained by the police to supply their deficiencies. If Horner were in danger it would be another thing; but this fellow will not appear against him, and the case must collapse. I suppose that I am commuting a felony, but it is just possible that I am saving a soul. This fellow will not go wrong again; he is too terribly frightened. Send him to gaol now, and you make him a gaol-bird for life. Besides, it is the season of forgiveness. Chance has put in our way a most singular and whimsical problem, and its solution is its own reward."
Sherlock Holmes, "The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle"

Normally, a detective's job is to investigate a crime, question witnesses and suspects, and ultimately reveal the guilty party so the law can take over. However, sometimes over the course of the investigation it will turn out that the victim was unspeakably evil, the perpetrators' motive was unquestionably good, the perpetrator has already been punished by the consequences of his deeds, and/or the reveal will cause collateral damage to innocents, such as the criminal's family. In this case, though all the evidence points to one particular solution, the detective will never reveal this to the authorities. Instead, the detective will either feign ignorance or concoct an alternative solution, sometimes going so far as to hide the most incriminating evidence. Sometimes marks the detective as an Anti-Hero, but if done right, it's possible for this to be written as the most moral option available to the detective. It's a classic example of someone having to choose whether To Be Lawful or Good and picking "Good".

If the culprit isn't a Sympathetic Murderer, expect them to be a Karma Houdini. Particularly fiendish villains may even use this to set up a Xanatos Gambit — either the crime goes unsolved, or the detective solves it but realises they can't reveal the solution without causing tremendous pain to the innocent. Can be an example of Screw the Rules, I'm Doing What's Right!. Subtrope of Go and Sin No More.

If the detective goes the extra mile and decides to recruit the criminal instead of just letting them off the hook, you may have a case where Cops Need the Vigilante.

An Ending Trope, so beware of spoilers.


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    Anime & Manga 
  • Case Closed tends to avert the trope, since to Conan and the major part of the cast, a crime is always a crime no matter the reasons. When there are "softening" circumstances, however, Conan and others make very sure to let them be known so the Sympathetic Murderer will get either the chance to be let go by the law (e.g., genuine self-defense cases) or have the lightest punishment possible (e.g., cases that don't qualify as self-defense but have good backing, like one Hell of an Asshole Victim, or the technicality of them not actually comitting the crime despite intending to).
  • Averted in an episode of Cowboy Bebop, where Jet stops off to see his ex Alissa. Before leaving, he learns that Alissa's current boyfriend Rhint has a bounty on him for killing a loan shark in self-defense. When Alissa and Rhint try to flee, Jet stops his partner Spike from going after the two of them, and Spike asks if Jet is actually going to capture the pair or let them get away. Jet does take them down, explaining to the two of them that if he let them go, someone else who might hurt them far worse in the course of collecting the bounty might be after them tomorrow, and by then Alissa will officially be an accomplice and wanted as well. Instead he encourages Rhint to face the charges and get it over with properly, later telling Alissa that Rhint has a good chance of being able to successfully plead self-defense at trial.
  • Occurs in an episode of Hana no Ko Lunlun (in a Shout-Out to the O. Henry story mentioned below). More exactly, an expert lockpicker and Punch-Clock Villain shows up to open an airtight vault and free Lunlun, never mind that the Inspector Javert in charge of the investigation is also working on his case. When he's done, the inspector lets him go - though in this particular case, it's justified in that the Statute of Limitations had just expired, so if the inspector tried to capture the lockpicker he would have to let him go anyway.
  • Kaitou Saint Tail has Sympathetic Inspector Antagonist Asuka Jr. consider Saint Tail to be his Worthy Opponent from the get-go, and he's even willing to set up a private conversation to negotiate with her and make sure he gets the exclusive right to catch her for the sake of satisfying his pride... or at least that's how it starts, but things get complicated when he starts suspecting Saint Tail to actually be Meimi, his classmate whom he's been falling in love with lately. On top of that, he finds himself starting to actually agree with her work as a vigilante hero and can't even bring himself to arrest her anymore. All this does is make him more insistent that nobody is allowed to get to the bottom of this before he does, and he pulls an Enemy Mine with her at one point and even quietly enables one of her heists during another to ensure this. On the flip side, Meimi/Saint Tail actually has no idea any of this is happening and still assumes he must be really passionate about (or perhaps even romantically interested in) his Worthy Opponent. At the end of the series, she's ready for him to despise and condemn her once he learns her identity, but he instead "catches" her purely symbolically, helps keep her secret to the world while she retires, and even openly speaks of her as someone who protected the city; the only thing he's not letting her off for is the idea of running away from him, because he's marrying her.
  • Multiple episodes of Layton Mystery Detective Agency have Katrielle discover the identity of a criminal, only to let them go. One episode revolves around a Phantom Thief who's been using an extremely advanced predictive computer to commit complex thefts. It turns out the computer also predicted the partial collapse of an underground tunnel, which could have killed or injured dozens of people if the affected area hadn't been roped off as part of the investigation into the thefts. When he learns the tunnel has collapsed without injuries, he immediately hands back the jewels he'd stolen, and Katry and the inspector let him go.
  • In Moriarty the Patriot, Sherlock actually does this a couple of times for William, as he has no actual interest in arresting him at all. In The Phantom of Whitechapel, he even lies about The Lord of Crime's involvement in the case to hide it.
  • Episode 9 of Super Sonico is a Locked Room Mystery in which Sonico has been knocked unconscious during a practice session, and her guitar stolen. Ena, the amateur sleuth trying to solve it, is seemingly inept and keeps coming up with bizarre theories, and everyone leaves none the wiser... but in The Stinger, Ena reveals she'd known the whole time, and had been Obfuscating Stupidity in order to cover it up. The culprit had accidentally spilled water on Sonico's amplifier, and had knocked her out so she wouldn't be able to practice and wouldn't realise the amp was broken; Ena didn't want her to be fired over a genuine mistake.

    Comic Books 
  • Judge Dredd: Parodied in a one-shot comic where a first-time thief steals from a recently deceased citizen before he's quickly cornered by Judge Dredd himself. After the thief pleads for mercy, Dredd unexpectedly does a 180 and gives the guy a break. Then it's shown to be just a dream the perp had in his cell.
  • Resident Alien: amateur detective Harry Vanderspeigle decides to do this after hearing Rebecca's story in the third volume since he considered it to be the most moral option available in that situation.
  • Subverted in Spider-Man. In The '90s, Spider-Man repeatedly ran into an elderly cat burglar called the Black Fox, who kept feeding Spidey sob stories about how he was just a pitiful, lonely old man who was about to retire from crime anyway, etc., etc. This would inspire Peter's sympathy, and if he didn't let the Fox go right away, his story would at least distract Spidey long enough for the Fox to slip away. Inevitably, Peter would realize a moment later that he'd let the old coot fast talk him again and be furious at himself. He eventually captured him for good in Spider-Man #350 after realizing he went soft because the crook reminded him of Uncle Ben.

    Comic Strips 
  • Parodied in Calvin and Hobbes in one of his "Tracer Bullet" film-noir fantasies where someone broke Mom's lamp.
    Calvin: (as Tracer Bullet) I had figured out who trashed the dame's living room, but since she wasn't my client anymore, I felt no need to divulge the information. Besides, the culprit happened to be a buddy of mine. I closed the case.
    Hobbes: (holding a football) I guess we should've played outside, huh?

    Films — Live-Action 
  • During the gunfight at the climax of 2 Days in the Valley a detective's life is saved by a semi-retired hitman. After the shootout, the hitman starts to gather up the money from his Last Job but hesitates when he sees the cop watching him. The cop thinks about it for a minute, then signals the hitman to take his money and go before more police arrive.
  • In Asian School Girls, Jack, the detective investigating the girls' vigilante killings, offers to destroy all the evidence against them if they help him nail the head of The Syndicate.
  • Assault on Wall Street: Jim's cop friends clearly realize or at least strongly suspect he was involved with the murders at the end, but still let him go (presumably from sympathy due to his losses).
  • In the vigilante movie The Brave One, the detective lets the female vigilante escape, apparently just out of personal sympathy.
  • In Chinatown, Jake Gittes lets Evelyn Mulwray take the girl and make a run for Mexico. It doesn't work though.
  • Subverted in one of the endings of Clue. In this one, Wadsworth deduces that Mrs. Peacock is the killer, but since the victims were an odious blackmailer and his informants, the killer should be allowed to escape. However Wadsworth is an FBI agent in this ending, and Peacock is arrested as soon as she steps outside.
  • At the end of Death Wish (1974), Lt. Ochoa figures out that Paul Kersey is the vigilante who has been killing criminals, but the District Attorney does not want the negative press that would come from prosecuting him. Because they are among the only authorities who know, they tell Paul to just get out of town, and they'll bury the evidence.
  • Freejack: After the film’s climax, Vacendak reveals that he was fully aware of Furlong’s deception attempt.
  • The Hindenburg (1975): The two card sharks are placed under arrest, with cops on the ground waiting to take them into custody. However, the cops let them leave after seeing them helping the Countess escape the burning zeppelin.
  • Hold Back the Dawn: Inspector Hammock the immigration cop, having been convinced that George really does love Emmy, does not report the details of George's Citizenship Marriage shenanigans to his superiors. George is allowed to rejoin Emmy in the United States.
  • I Spit on Your Grave:
    • In the second film, Kirill lets Katie go after discovering she's murdered her rapists (he also kills the last one to stop him from killing her). This seems to stem largely from guilt, as he had unwittingly handed her back into their hands.
    • Though he didn't let Jennifer off completely, Detective McDylan in the third film may have got Jennifer's last attack down from attempted murder to assault since by the end of the film, she's about to get out after doing just two years in prison.
  • The Invisible Man (2020): James clearly knows Cecilia murdered Adrian at the end. He lets her go, however, realizing this was the only way to stop him. Since he and his daughter were also nearly murdered by Adrian's accomplice, he's got personal motive to overlook the act as well.
  • In Juncture, Det. Hodges figures out that Anna is the vigilante. He arrests her to get her away from the local cops, before explaining that much of his information is based on an illegal search and inadmissible in court. He then turns her loose to continue her Vigilante Man mission.
  • Miss Meadows: Mike discovers that Miss Meadows is the vigilante. He lets her go free, letting a criminal take the blame. Of course, they were about to be married, so he's already greatly sympathetic. Aside from which, the utterly foul and depraved nature of her "victims" already makes Mike willing to let her off the hook (the first legitimately was Killing in Self-Defense anyway, though he doesn't know that for certain).
  • In Murder on the Orient Express (1974), Poirot allows the murderers to go free because the murder victim had hurt all of the people who committed the murder with his own crimes.
  • Peppermint: At the end, Beltran gives Riley a handcuff key when she's under arrest in the hospital, allowing her to escape since he agrees with her vigilante killings.
  • Charlie Chaplin film The Pilgrim features The Tramp as an escaped convict masquerading as a minister. After Charlie retrieves the money another hoodlum stole from Charlie's girlfriend and returns it, the sheriff arrests him. The sheriff then lets Charlie escape to Mexico.
  • In Sudden Impact, Inspector Harry Callahan is on the trail of a woman named Jennifer Spencer, who is hunting down and killing the men who gang-raped her. At the climax of the story, one of her would-be victims, Mick holds her hostage with her own gun and Harry kills the man to save her. When the police show up to investigate, Harry shows them the gun in the man's hand and convinces them that he was responsible for all the killings (in truth, the only one of the murders that Mick was responsible for was killing the police chief).
  • Detective Finch in V for Vendetta takes it one step further. Not only does he let Evee go, but he ends up going with her to watch the fireworks.

  • As usual with mystery tropes, Sherlock Holmes did it first.
    • In "The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle" Holmes lets the culprit go, although he does ensure the Countess gets her gem back and an innocent man is released from prison. He explains afterward to Watson that he feels that the thief had experienced so much fear and anguish that he won't dare try to commit another crime, and thus is more likely to become a hardened criminal if he goes to prison, whereas currently he's not a danger to anyone.
      Holmes: After all, Watson, I am not retained by the police to supply their deficiencies.
    • This also occurs in "The Adventure of the Priory School". James Wilder, the illegitimate older son of the Duke of Holdernesse, plans to kidnap the Duke's younger son from his school in order to force the Duke to change his will in Wilder's favor. Wilder hires a man called Reuben Hayes to perform the kidnapping, but Hayes murders an innocent teacher who tried to prevent it. Wilder's horror at the event leads him to confess everything to the Duke. Even though Wilder is guilty of kidnapping an innocent boy, conspiracy to commit kidnapping, and partial responsibility for the murder, Holmes only turns in Hayes to the police, allowing Wilder to be sent to Australia to seek his fortune. This is notably subverted in the Granada adaptation where Wilder does not get off. Instead he kidnaps the boy himself in a futile attempt to still make the scheme work and dies while hiding in a cave.
    • In "The Adventure of The Abbey Grange", after subjecting the perp to a Secret Test of Character, Holmes "appoints" Watson as jury, and they declare him not guilty by reason of self-defence. (This might be how an actual court would see it, but it would embroil the lady concerned in scandal.)
    • In "The Boscombe Valley Mystery", the killer is elderly and dying, and Holmes agrees to keep it quiet so as to spare the man's innocent daughter the knowledge of her father's guilt. Holmes does insist on taking his confession, however, in case the man currently being accused cannot be cleared by other means.
    • One more Sherlock one, "The Adventure of the Devil's Foot". The Asshole Victim murdered several people, including his own sister, with a horrific psychotropic drug, and is subsequently subjected to the same drug by a man who was in love with the murdered sister. Holmes doesn't hesitate to let the Sympathetic Murderer go, commenting that were he in the man's shoes, he might very well have done the exact same thing.
    • And "The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton", which pits Holmes against the titular villain, whom he knows by reputation as a notorious blackmailer who always gets away with his crimes, and who Holmes has long regarded as actually worse than most of the murderers he has put away as he has ruined so many lives. Holmes and Watson actually resort to breaking into Milverton's house to steal incriminating evidence, and end up witnessing Milverton being murdered by one of his other victims; they take the opportunity to destroy as much blackmail evidence as they can get their hands on. They are spotted fleeing the scene, but not recognized, so when the police come to Holmes to consult they think that Milverton was killed by the two mystery men. Holmes declines both to tell the police the truth or even to take the case, flat-out stating that Milverton was an Asshole Victim and that his sympathy is with the "killers".
    • In "The Three Students", when Holmes and his friend confront the student who had copied half the answer key to an upcoming major exam, they find that he had just written a letter withdrawing from the examination in question and that he was planning to leave the university to take up a job offer in Rhodesia. They decide to accept his repentance and wish him well in his new career.
    • In "The Second Stain", Holmes doesn't expose the woman who stole confidential government documents from her husband, once he's gotten the papers back.
    • In "The Three Gables", Holmes forces Isadora Klein to make restitution to the woman whose house she had robbed, but doesn't turn her in to the police. In this one, he even jokes about how often he ends up letting the criminal go ("I suppose I shall have to compound a felony as usual").
    • This also happens in at least one Holmes pastiche. In Stephen King's story "The Doctor's Case", the victim is a Domestic Abuser to wife and sons and had just informed them that he was about to completely disinherit them, leaving them penniless at his natural death that would happen shortly anyway. They respond by killing their tormentor and disposing of the will that would disinherit them, leaving an older one with them receiving the estate as the one that a court would act on. Holmes, Watson, and Lestrade collectively agree that the deceased had it coming and drop the matter.
  • Raymond Chandler does this several times with Philip Marlowe.
    • In The Big Sleep, he proceeds to let Carmine Sternwood off for the murder of Rusty Regan because she's insane. This is a Downplayed Trope because she is still to be committed to an institution by her family.
    • In The High Window, Philip Marlowe once more demonstrates this quality by refusing to turn over any information about the Murdocks despite the fact that Leslie and his mother are both murderers.
  • Dame Agatha Christie's works:
    • Murder on the Orient Express is the most famous example. A man let off on a technicality after kidnapping and murdering a young girl is found dead on the Orient Express, and after investigating, Poirot announces that there are two possible solutions. The first is that an unknown assassin crept onto the train, killed the man, then slipped away again. The second is that Everybody Did It - all the passengers on the train murdered him together, since they're all friends or employees of the murdered girl's family, looking for revenge. Although the first solution is full of holes, Poirot agrees to tell the police that that is what happened, since he believes that justice has been done by the murder.

      The 2010 adaptation raises some of the issues that have been associated with this solution — for one, Poirot is much more reluctant to let the killers off, because he is revolted by the crime and its motivation even though he admits that the victim had it coming like no other, and in other stories, he has not let such a thing get in the way of the law. The other is that, given the circumstances he and the killers find themselves in, it would be perfectly possible for them to just kill him before the authorities arrive and pass the killer off as a third party; the book glosses over the fact that even if Poirot did want to turn them in, he wasn't in much of a position to do so anyway as the killers had him at their mercy. In the end, he still lets them off and the killers agree prior that murdering Poirot (and the train manager, his friend) would be a Moral Event Horizon none of them are willing to cross, so the original ending still plays out, albeit with more angst.
    • And then there's a much more controversial case of Countess Vera Rossakoff in "The Double Clue" short story. True, she's only guilty of robbery, not murder, and Poirot makes her return what she had stolen, but otherwise she was let off scot-free — for the sole reason that the famous detective fell for her.
    • In Death on the Nile Poirot discovers that Tim Allerton is a jewel thief and manages to get a confession about him, but lets him go, so long as he returns his latest stolen item. Allerton's apology and Last Minute Hook Up with Rosalie Otterbourne convinces Poirot that he won't steal again.
    • At the end of The Mirror Crack'd from Side to Side, Miss Marple suspects that the story's main murderer, Marina Gregg, was poisoned by her husband as a Mercy Kill to save her from further suffering and from the disgrace of public prosecution. After briefly hinting at this suspicion to him (and his response implying that she is correct), Miss Marple says no more about it.
  • In the John Dickson Carr novel The Mad Hatter Mystery, Dr. Fell knows who the true murderer is despite the crime having been blamed on another (conveniently dead) character. The true killer confesses to Hadley out of guilt, against Fell's advice, but on the final page Hadley, Fell, and Ted Rampole decide to let the case remain officially unsolved and let the culprit, who really committed manslaughter more at the victim's instigation, go free.
  • In one of Georges Simenon's 13 Mystères, investigator Joseph Leborgne didn't tell the police their case was a Suicide, Not Murder Insurance Fraud.
  • The Divide: Sheriff Riggs discovers that Josh and Ty killed Rolf but chooses not to arrest them for it, feeling it was self-defense but that they'd be Convicted by Public Opinion and have already suffered enough. The fact that he's in love with Josh's mother helps.
  • The Finishing Stroke is an Ellery Queen novel wherein the author/detective hero is stumped by the murder for a couple of decades. When he does finally solve the case the killer, who was an older man when he committed the murder, is truly elderly and infirm. Since Ellery doesn't want to see him spend the last few years of his life in prison, he keeps his identity secret.
  • Something along these lines happens at the conclusion of The Guns of the South. A group of Amoral Afrikaners who were extremists even by the standards of Apartheid South Africa travel back in time to The American Civil War to help the Confederacy win the war, resulting in the creation of a country that they hope will be inclined to agree with their views on race. However, the Afrikaners are so hateful and cruel towards black people that it even kind of disturbs many of the Confederates. At the end of the books, after the Afrikaners have turned against the Confederates and more evidence of their atrocities come to light (these guys essentially being more like Neo-Nazis than anything else), a slave kills one of the Afrikaners in front of some Confederate troops and turns himself in right afterwards, saying that he knows it's an automatic death sentence for a black man to kill a white man in that place and era, but the Afrikaner was just so cruel and evil that he had to do it no matter the consequences. The soldiers look at each other for a minute, weighing the law versus the atrocities they've seen and the fact that the Afrikaners are now their enemies too, then basically decide to look the other way and let the black man go rather than punish him.
  • Erast Fandorin lets the Lovable Rogue Momos off at the end of The Jack of Spades, mainly because he has no solid evidence against him, Momos returned everything he stole from Fandorin and his friends, and, along the way, helped him catch an Asshole Victim red-handed. He does arrest Momos' girlfriend Mimi, however, but Momos gets her out of prison in no time.
  • In The Mirror Crack'd from Side to Side, it is subtly implied that the main murderer was poisoned by her husband to save her from public disgrace and prevent more murders. Miss Marple suspects this is the case but keeps quiet.
  • In the Dr. Thorndyke novel Mr. Pottermack's Oversight, Dr. Thorndyke is the only person who realizes that Mr. Pottermack has anything to do with the death of James Lewson (due to noticing the one detail Mr. Pottermack overlooked), and starts his own investigation. After establishing that Pottermack killed Lewson in something like self-defence following years of persecution, he chooses to keep his discoveries to himself.
  • In "Murder Mysteries" by Neil Gaiman, a detective tells the story of his first case, in which the killer had a sympathetic motivation but paid the ultimate price. It's implied that he's telling the story at this time and in this place because the case has parallels to the murder he's currently working — and that he's decided this time to let the killer off.
  • In Isaac Asimov's The Naked Sun, Elijah Baley calls a Summation Gathering and reveals that the murder victim's neighbor, a roboticist named Jothan Leebig, was planning to subvert the Three Laws of Robotics to create an army of Killer Robots, and had masterminded the victim's murder to keep him from interfering. Leebig commits suicide rather than being arrested, and no one notices the fact that Leebig couldn't possibly have carried out the physical deed due to his intense fear of human contact. Baley admits later that, as initially suspected, the victim's wife Gladia was the one who killed her husband, having been manipulated into it by Leebig. Since he sympathized with her circumstances, he felt she didn't deserve to be punished.
  • In the O. Henry short story, "A Retrieved Reformation", a notorious safecracker is deliberately ignored by the detective who has been tracking him, even though he has just revealed himself by opening a safe, because the thief is on his way to a better life (and the safe he just opened contained a trapped and terrified little girl).
  • Retired Witches Mysteries: In book 2, a cop tries to stop (and then arrest) Molly for speeding, but when he realizes she was only doing it to catch up to her husband, who's also a cop (and whom she claims had called for help), who'd been left unconscious by the book's villain, he's sympathetic to her and decides to let it slide.
  • Talion: Revenant: Despite chasing him all throughout the book (and before its events) for banditry, Nolan lets off Morai in the end, grateful due to his help with exposing the Hamisian plot. Plus Morai's simply just that charming, even Nolan comes to like him.
  • In The Thursday Murder Club, it turns out there were three murderers. Two were Paying Evil Unto Evil, and one was trying to protect one of the others, who is now in a coma. Elizabeth tells the protector that she has to report the whole situation to the police, but not until morning, knowing this gives him enough time to Mercy Kill the person he was protecting and commmit suicide himself. The unrelated case, which the police have pinned on someone who will never be found, she chooses to keep to herself.
  • To Kill a Mockingbird: Heck Tate realizes that Boo Radley killed Bob Ewell to protect Jem and Scout from his revenge against Atticus. He doesn't do it because he thinks Boo will be convicted, but because he wants to protect a shy man from too much attention, and claims that Ewell fell on his knife.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Castle features this idea, with Castle halfheartedly trying to argue this point with Detective Beckett. It occurred when the victim's father found out that she had been murdered and took out the killer themselves. Beckett points out that it might work out that way in a novel, but not in real life and she arrests the guilty party anyway.
    • In another episode, after solving the main mystery (who killed the treasure hunter who'd tracked down an old diamond necklace using a private eye's journal), Castle realizes they also have enough information to solve one of the mysteries raised within the journal. It turns out that the seemingly unrelated witness they were talking to was the supposedly-dead private eye, his wife was the supposedly-dead moll, and they had killed her mobster boyfriend after stealing the necklace. After Castle and Beckett confirm their suspicions, they decide that A) the situation sounds like self-defense, and B) it was such a long time ago, they probably couldn't get a conviction anyway.
  • Cold Case:
    • "Justice" has the investigators looking into the gone-cold murder of a university athlete... who the investigation eventually reveals to have been a Jerk Jock serial rapist, who was confronted by a group of his victims at gunpoint and pretended to be sorry so they would go away. And then the brother of one of said rape victims picked up the gun that the group had tossed into the trash and shot the unrepentant a-hole while he was still laughing off the tension and gloating about it. The investigators told the brother while they are still interrogating him on how to make his confession sound like he had shot the jock in self-defense (which the evidence was circumstantial enough to support).
    • "A Perfect Day" focuses on the murder of a child. It revolves around a family of four, parents and twin girls. The father was a cop and a domestic abuser. The mother tried to take her daughters and leave with her boyfriend, a good man and also a cop. Her husband intercepted them, tried to kill them all, and did kill one of his daughters. The mom left her remaining daughter in a church and hid, the boyfriend didn't know exactly what had happened but was pretty sure the husband/father was responsible and had done something terrible. The father died in a shootout shortly after, and the boyfriend all but admits to taking advantage of the chaos to kill him. The detectives decide there's no need to put that particular statement on the record. (In a final Take That! to the father, they also have his picture removed from a wall of officers killed in the line of duty at a cop bar, because the father didn't deserve to be remembered as a hero.)
  • An episode of Criminal Minds ("Riding the Lightning") inverted this. A woman was on death row for being an accomplice serial killer. The only murder she had admitted to was her son's. The Behavioral Analysis Unit discovered the child was still alive; the woman had hidden him from her husband, the real killer, and wanted to die herself so that her son would grow up not knowing he was descended from such people. The BAU let her be executed for the crime she didn't commit (but Hotch taunted the husband at his execution with a photo of his still-living son).
  • The Columbo episode "Forgotten Lady" has guest star Janet Leigh portraying an aging movie star who plans a comeback. Her physician husband refuses to fund it because he knows she's dying of a brain disease, and she kills him. There is some evidence that she has quickly forgotten what she did (along with other recent events), which Columbo confides to her dear friend and former co-star. She becomes distraught at Columbo's persistent investigations, and the friend confesses to the murder to soothe her. Columbo knows that she has no more than a month or so to live and assures the friend that he'll take his time disproving the false confession until she dies.
  • CSI: NY:
    • In one episode, a man was killed at a local university and the forensic evidence was destroyed using information gained at a lecture given by one of the cast. After discovering that the deceased was a repeat stalker who had driven one woman to suicide and followed another across multiple states despite a name change, they managed to track down the stalkee-turned-killer but while they did arrest her, they made a point to tell her that without a confession, there was no way to convict her on such flimsy circumstantial evidence.
    • In another episode, Stella warns off a suspect who was her former foster sister, after the woman killed a man who'd molested her. Stella should have arrested her but instead tells her she'll be back the next day to make the arrest, knowing full well the woman would probably be gone by then.
    • Another involved Chief Carver and his nephew, who had killed his abusive mother in desperation. Mac does have to have the boy stand trial for manslaughter, but it's likely he won't get prison time, and Carver is just forced into retirement and stripped of his pension, rather than being tried as an accessory.
  • Daredevil (2015): Karen Page gets her brother Kevin killed in a car accident when she gets distracted while arguing with him after she had to save him from being beaten to death by her drug-dealing boyfriend. The local sheriff lets Karen off the hook and alters the accident report to claim that Kevin was alone, out of sympathy for the Pages due to the death of Karen's mother from cancer only a few years earlier and their subsequent financial struggles. However, Karen gets branded as a pariah and is forced to leave Fagan Corners. What happened to Kevin doesn't come back to hurt her until season 3 when Wilson Fisk begins digging, finds out what really happened, and his fixer Felix Manning threatens Karen with public exposure of this information when she tries to talk to him about the dirty work he's doing for Fisk.
  • Played with in Elementary. Captain Gregson's daughter murders a serial killer who's been stalking Sherlock. Sherlock figures this out but rather than turning her in (which would also get Gregson charged as an accessory), opts to confess to the crime himself using his connections to MI6 to escape punishment (other than being unable to return to the US). Amusingly, the FBI officer guesses that he's not actually the murderer but believes that he's doing it to cover for Watson instead.
  • In the Firefly episode "The Train Job", the crew is hired by a powerful and very murderous crime boss to steal some cargo from a train. When they learn that the cargo was medicine used to treat a debilitating local malady, they try to return it instead. The local sheriff catches them at work when they're leaving the boxes of medicine on the edge of town, and could still bring them in for stealing it in the first place and assaulting at least one federal agent in the process, but he recognizes their good intentions and that they had no clue what they were taking, so he lets them go on their way after the medicine is returned.
  • In the Foyle's War episode "Among the Few" Detective Foyle lets off an RAF fighter pilot to fly one last mission instead of arresting him immediately for homicide because the arrest would make public his homosexuality and shame him. Implicitly the pilot promises that he will not come back alive from the mission, and he does not.
  • In the Grimm episode "Endangered" the Monster of the Week is a very rare Wesen who killed a farmer by accident while collecting cow ovaries for his pregnant wife. Nick not only lets them off, he basically frames the Egomaniac Hunter who was after the baby's skin.
  • On Haven, this trope usually occurs due to Fantastic Legal Weirdness. But the trope is played straight in season 4, when Dwight declines to arrest Duke for killing his own brother, Wade, because he felt that it was for the great good, as he had Jumped Off The Slippery Slope and would have hurt more people had Duke not stopped him.
  • One episode of Homicide: Life on the Street had Felton's childhood friend mercy kill his cancer-stricken father at the man's request. When Lewis and Crosetti take him in, Felton coaches him before his interrogation and browbeats a reluctant Lewis into letting him wash the gunpowder off his hands before he's tested to find residue from the gunshot.
  • Jonathan Creek:
    • In the episode "The Scented Room", a theatre critic who gave his act a bad review and his violent wife have a priceless painting of theirs vanish from a locked room, stolen by a nanny concerned that they were distant and abusive to their son. The painting is returned, but Jonathan refuses to tell them where it went or who took it, partly because he sympathises with the culprit, and partly just to annoy the critic.
    • In "Danse Macabre" meanwhile, it turns out the murder was actually an elaborate suicide. Although this means that the "murderers" were still accomplices to suicide — a crime in the UK — Jonathan doesn't turn them in to the police out of obvious sympathy. It's not clear if he turns in the stalker who stole the corpse's head for A Love to Dismember. Although it's strongly implied that the head's previous owner, an Expy of Elvira, would have taken it in the spirit in which it was intended anyway.
  • In the Law & Order episode "Deadbeat" McCoy and Ross realize that a woman killed her child support dodging ex-husband to keep him from finding out that "his" son wasn't his. Because she's the mother of a terminally ill boy, Jack decides to indefinitely delay her prosecution.
  • Law & Order: Special Victims Unit:
    • The very first episode, "Payback", has a downplayed example. The victim is actually a wanted war criminal guilty of the rape of over fifty women, and he was killed by two of his victims. One of the killers commits suicide, the other (married with a young son) is arrested. While they don't let her off, the detectives and ADA go out of their way to give her the lightest sentence possible and don't even ask for bail.
    • In "Fight" the two brothers actually are innocent of almost every crime, but Casey points out there's nothing she can do about the gun charge one of them is facing. Fin replies that the gun was "lost" coming back from the crime scene. Casey (and Cragen) sees it for the lie it is but goes along with it. With that charge gone too, the brothers get to walk away free.
  • In the Life episode "Black Friday", the decedent is found to have coercively recruited several runaways into a criminal enterprise and pressured the female member of the group into sex at a very young age. The person who killed him is a homeless teenager protecting his young sister. Detective Crews tells the killer to claim that the dead guy accidentally fell. It works.
  • Medium:
    • Alison solves the murder in the episode "A Taste of Her Own Medicine" because as the title suggests, it was an Asshole Victim. An elderly lady poisoned her daughter because the latter was a sociopath who was poisoning her child stepdaughter to get her money and had already successfully murdered the girl's mother to take her place. The murderer was completely unrepentant and her mother took the Sadistic Choice of poisoning her.
    • In "Jury, Judge, Executioner", the killer is a vile Gold Digger who killed his wife in a sadistic hunting game when she was no longer useful for his career. His father-in-law was fooled for years by his respectable façade and defended him. When the father found out he was guilty after all, he kidnapped the killer and did the same hunting game with him as a target. It is mentioned at the end of the episode that the father will suffer little-to-no prosecution due to his old age and very sympathetic motive.
  • A non-murder version occurs in The Mentalist in "Black Cherry". The sister of a victim of the week pulls a gun on some gang-bangers who she thought knew who her brother's killer was. Even though she's caught red-handed for assault by Lisbon, she's dissuaded from prosecuting her by Jane, who reminds her that if the sister goes off to prison, her brother's young son would likely end up in foster care and eventually in the very gang that the sister pulled a gun on. Eventually, Lisbon is able to talk Sarah (the ADA who wants to prosecute) out of it by playing on her brand-new motherly instincts.
  • The Punisher: After defeating Billy Russo and killing the other members of Operation Cerberus, Frank Castle is officially let off the hook by CIA Deputy Director Marion James and his records are expunged, with Frank now free to live his life under the new name "Pete Castiglione".
  • Veronica Mars: In season two, gay students are blackmailed into giving someone money or risk getting outed. When Veronica solves the mystery, she doesn't bother calling the crook out since the student in question didn't actually collect any blackmail money and was gay herself, she just wanted to be out with her girlfriend.
  • The Wire:
    • In the first season, Omar Little, a stickup artist who only robs drug dealers and other criminals, kills Stinkum, a hitman for the Barksdale Organization that had participated in torturing and murdering Omar's boyfriend. However, the Major Crimes Unit investigating the Barksdale gang needs Omar, who has pledged to testify against the Barksdales, (something not many people will do due to the way the Barksdales react to witnesses) and as a result, Jimmy McNulty and Bunk Moreland have to mislead Cole, the detective investigating Stinkum's death, away from catching Omar. McNulty feels bad about misleading Cole and looking the other way, to the point that he and the rest of the MCU question if they can even still really consider themselves police, while Bunk is driven to having a rather drunken one-night stand.
      Jimmy McNulty: Lester, are we still cops?
      Lester Freamon: ...technically. I suppose.
    • In the fourth season, Bubbles accidentally poisons Sherrod, the young boy who was like a son to him and is completely heartbroken about it, to the point of trying to commit suicide after confessing and tearfully begging the police to lock him up. Bubbles is so pitiful and broken down that Jay Landsman decides to place him in drug treatment instead of throwing him in jail and decides it's not a case to add to their clearance. Thanks to that, Bubbles is finally able to get off drugs and reform after decades of living on the street.
      Jay Landsman: Lets throw this one back. This sad motherfucker is carrying more weight than we can ever put on him.

  • In The BBC Radio 4 adaptation of the Violet Strange whodunnit "An Intangible Clue" by Anna Katherine Green for The Rivals, which adds Inspector Lestrade to the story, Lestrade mentions that the file on the murder of the man who killed Violet's husband was "lost", and as far as he's concerned will remain so. None of this is in the original story.
  • In the Sherlock Holmes (BBC Radio) radio drama "The Singular Inheritance of Miss Gloria Wilson", Holmes chooses to keep silent when he realizes that a repentant and long-retired thief is about to escape police custody.
  • The 1964 Sherlock Holmes series emphasises this in "The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter". In the original, Holmes learns long after the event that the two criminals were found dead in Budapest, and while he may not agree with the official opinion that they killed each other, it's certainly not his place to advise the Hungarian police. In the radio version, they're found dead before they had a chance to leave the country, and Holmes and Gregson both agree that the official verdict should be that they killed each other, and they aren't going to look very hard for Sophy to see if she'd confirm this.

    Video Games 
  • In Detroit: Become Human, when investigating the murder in the sex club, at the climax of the fight with the two rogue androids Connor grabs Hank's gun and has the option to either shoot or spare the android he was fighting with. If he spares her, she'll stop fighting and explain how she watched the client kill the other android in the room with them, and knew he was going to do the same to her. She begged him not to, then to stop, but when he didn't stop she fought back and killed him, then fled. She then reveals that she's in a relationship with the other rogue android, and all they want to do is leave together. As Connor and Hank watch them go, Hank, knowing that no matter the circumstances behind it, a rogue android who killed a human would be put down, comments that it's probably better letting them escape than bringing them in.
  • In Deus Ex: Human Revolution you have the option of doing this in a few quests. Typically by deciding that the person you're after is in the right or just an Unwitting Pawn (examples include the anti cyborg terrorist from the first story mission and the rogue Belltower unit from the sidequest in the second visit to China).

    Visual Novels 
  • In the protagonist's trial in Daughter for Dessert, Mortelli renders all of the evidence against him inadmissible so that he’ll be acquitted of burglary, as Mortelli is sure that The protagonist did the right thing given the circumstances.
  • In Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney – Justice For All, the Non Standard Game Over in the final case involves you being blackmailed into doing this. In this case, though, your assistant has been kidnapped by an assassin hired by the culprit, who'll kill her if the culprit is found guilty. To get the Golden Ending, you need to show the assassin that he was going to be betrayed by the murderer.

    Web Original 
  • Can You Spare a Quarter?: The police apparently suspect that Frank beat Jamie's father up but they choose to not follow it up, since he's an Asshole Victim who almost raped his son to death.

    Western Animation 
  • In the Star Wars: The Clone Wars episode "The Deserter", an injured Rex is recovering at a local farmer's house, only to discover that her husband is a fellow Clone Trooper who deserted early in the war after his unit was wiped out. At the end of the episode, Rex admits that it's his duty to report deserters, but then adds that in his "condition", he is unlikely to remember details like what the family who took him in looked like.

    Real Life 
  • In many jurisdictions, police have the right to use Enforcement Discretion for lesser crimes (generally so they aren't bogged down chasing every single offense).

    In the United States, this is actually expected of prosecutors; the reason that federal grand juries and many state grand juries almost always indict anyone who is brought before them is that prosecutors are expected to only go forward in cases where they think they can prove beyond reasonable doubt that someone committed a crime — a much higher standard than is required for indictment. This is because prosecutors have limited funding to go after everyone, so they only go after the cases they think they can most easily win. States where this is not the expectation have significantly lower rates of indictment by grand juries due to more very weak cases being brought before them.

    This trope is averted in many states for police officers, where any case brought by a county prosecutor is required to go before a grand jury. Grand juries determine whether the prosecution has enough evidence (probable cause) of a case for a criminal indictment. It may be hard to secure a criminal indictment on police because many police departments have statutes authorizing "reasonable use of force" by their officers in order to cause an arrest or if the officer believes the person is a danger to society. This is backed by ruling of the Supreme Court (Tennessee v. Garner 1985) which has deemed that police can use lethal force if they have a "reasonable belief" they are facing danger to their life.
  • In sentencing, a discharge is a variant of this that can be called Let Off by the Judge. Although the defendant is deemed guilty, they're given no punishment, often because of circumstances out of their control. In the 1892 Thirsk train crash, for instance, improper signalling due to the signalman falling asleep led to two trains colliding, ten deaths, and numerous injuries. Although the signalman was found guilty of manslaughter, he was given a discharge for multiple reasons: the company he was working for had ignored several bits of protocol that would have also prevented the crash, and the only reason he was sleeping on the job at all was that his sick baby daughter had just died after he'd been up for thirty-six hours taking care of her and walking for miles trying to find the local doctor and the railway still didn't give him the day off.