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Smoking Gun

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Rule 1: No evidence shall be shown without the approval of the Police Department.
Rule 2: Unregistered evidence presented must be relevant to the case in trial.
Evidence Law Book, Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney

The introduction of a key piece of evidence at the climax of a trial. Particularly, it is evidence that renders moot everything that has gone before or would have rendered the whole trial unnecessary from the beginning because it clearly implicates (or absolves) the defendant. It can come in two styles:

  • A person introduces evidence in the case, or at least in a different light, and this inevitably shows the perpetrator for the criminal due to this evidence being so crucial. In this case, however, the evidence was already in the system and therefore in reality is totally legal. Most lawyers will not make fly-by statements or ask different questions they have not researched, as in reality this can lead to losing a case because of an unexpected answer that can turn the tables.
  • A person introduces evidence randomly WITHOUT anyone knowing about it beforehand, even the judge. The evidence is absolutely crucial, and even by existing in the room at the exact moment, the perpetrator is either found guilty, or exposed. If the perpetrator is not the defendant or the prosecution, expect them to be in the courtroom when this evidence is shown, and the bailiff and security will get them before they can make any motion to escape. In real life introducing evidence in this manner is completely illegal to the system, and can cost the defense or prosecution the case, get the case mistrialed, set for a new date, or given a new jury. Not that that matters in fiction. Sometimes justified or hand waved by the prosecutor and/or the judge being informed of the existence of such a smoking gun, and if not cooperating, at least acquiescing to the Courtroom Antics needed to bring it in.

Sometimes other Courtroom Antics are pulled to buy time if it is known the smoking gun will arrive soon. Often, the key piece of evidence is the real perpetrator being Caught on Tape. Compare Surprise Witness. When used outside the courtroom as the last part of a Bat Deduction, it's Clue, Evidence, and a Smoking Gun.


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    Comic Books 
  • Done literally in New Warriors. Vance, a telekinetic, is on trial for the murder of his abusive father. The defense claims it was an accident, Vance was striking out in self-defense with his badly-tuned powers. The prosecuter pulls a pistol and fires at Vance's face. Vance mentally freezes the gag pistol and, unfortunately, the very smoke emanating from it. Stopping the smoke gets him sent away. The prosecuter remains unpunished.
  • In Youngblood: Judgment Day, Toby King introduces the book of Hermes, a book containing all of history that can be used to alter the future — or the past. He'd spent the entire trial trying to prove that the theft of the book was the true motive for Riptide's murder, and finally had proof of both this and his client Knightsabre's innocence: a passage written by Sentinel to implicate Knightsabre in the crime, as proven by the fact that it describes him writing it.

    Films — Animated 
  • Used literally in Bee Movie. Barry's friend even has to buy time, and the defending lawyer demands evidence (despite there already being evidence) of a smoking gun. Barry shows up with a smoke gun used to calm down honeybees. Bees win the case against humans.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • The film My Cousin Vinny ends with a classic smoking gun revelation, in which Vinny discovers a piece of evidence (Mona Lisa Vito's photograph of the tire marks, which was taken from a different position than the police photo and so showed the tire marks in their entirety) that proves that his clients couldn't have committed the murder, which leads to the further revelation that the actual perpetrators have already been arrested for an unrelated crime. At that point, it doesn't even have to go to the jury — the prosecuting attorney dismisses the charges against Vinny's clients.
  • Miracle on 34th Street: A pair of post office employees hear about a man on trial claiming to be Santa Claus, and decide to ease their workload by sending him the numerous "dead letters" written to Santa. His lawyer then claims that this constitutes his client being recognized as Santa Claus by an official government body.
  • Depending on your views on animal rights, you could classify this as a surprise witness, but in the Three Stooges' short Disorder in the Court, a parrot is discovered in the course of the trial with a letter tied to its leg, revealing the true killer and freeing their client.
  • In the film Legally Blonde towards the climax, Elle manages to pull one hell of a witness testimony and succeed just as she wanted. Chutney states she had gotten a perm, then takes a shower at home a while later. Elle manages to catch there'd be no way she could have as she'd ruin the perm, and begins proving it with a series of fast-paced comments stating why it's impossible. Chutney gets stressed and reveals herself as the culprit. While there technically was no introduced evidence, no character in the trial had picked up on the fact, thus Chutney's hair became the evidence.
  • Chicago: The District Attorney thinks he has a smoking gun, in the form of Roxie's diary being read into evidence by Velma Kelly. Oops. Turns out he was Out-Gambitted by Billy Flynn. He gave the DA the diary in plea bargain to save Velma. Regardless of what happened in the courtroom, he saved at least one client.
  • Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country: The trial in the Klingon Kangaroo Court against Kirk and McCoy is already going incredibly poorly, despite their defence lawyer's best attempts to provide reasonable doubt as to their complicity in (if not their competence in managing) the assassination of the Klingon Chancellor. But it's the audio recording of Kirk's bigotry against Klingons and the leading question of "Is a captain responsible for the conduct of his crew [regardless of whether he is aware of said conduct, such as a conspiracy]?" that provide the final nails in the coffin.

  • The Lord Peter Wimsey mystery novel Clouds of Witness ends with a smoking gun, namely the victim's suicide letter, which he sent to his ex-lover in America. To get the letter back to London in time for the trial, Lord Peter has to take an airplane... and in the year 1926, a transatlantic flight is no laughing matter. It's dramatic all right.
  • In John Hemry's Paul Sinclair novel Rule of Evidence, Paul Sinclair dredges up evidence at the last moment that the newly installed system on the ship could have caused the problem they were blaming on sabotage. Specifically, the evidence includes a warning of problems the system could cause ... and the description in the warning is essentially identical to what actually happened. Someone in the government had concealed that evidence; the prosecutor note  and the judge were NOT happy with whoever it was.
  • Mark Twain's Pudd'nhead Wilson features the last-minute introduction of forensic evidence that not only solves the case on trial, but exposes another, unrelated deception that had gone undetected for twenty years.
  • In the trial of Tycho Celchu in the X-Wing Series novels, there are two smoking guns. The first is a surprise witness (Who the prosecution and defense were both fully aware of and trying to bring in, it's just that he had only come forward as a witness less than a day before), who was killed before he could testify. The other is yet another surprise witness, who neither prosecutor or defense knew about until he walked into the courtroom - the man that Tycho was on trial for murdering.
  • The Dresden Files:
    • In Turn Coat, Dresden brings one in the form of a picture of the actual perpetrator arriving in Chicago.
    • At the end of Proven Guilty, Dresden tries every trick he can think of to get Molly Carpenter a lighter sentence for her use of Black Magic (which she was guilty of, but with good intentions and ignorant of the consequences). He manages to turn most of the court's sympathy in her favor, but in doing so humiliates the Merlin by outplaying him, causing him to sentence Molly to death out of spite. But right before the execution can be carried out, the rest of the Senior Council arrives and -having just had their collectives asses saved by Molly's father- quickly overturn the sentence.

    Live Action TV 
  • M*A*S*H
    • In the episode "Snappier Judgment", Klinger is court martialed for theft and is about to be convicted. However, at the last second, Hawkeye, BJ and Military Police officers, dragging in the true culprit, charge in with a photograph that proves that their prisoner, and not Klinger, is the thief.
    • In an earlier episode, Majors Burns and Houlihan managed to have Colonel Blake arrested for "giving aid and comfort to the enemy". Hawkeye and Trapper arrived at the last minute with one of the "enemy" Blake was accused of aiding; a pregnant South Korean villager (North Korea was the enemy during that war, not South) who was dislocated when her village was bombed. When Burns refused to back down from his trumped-up charge, Hawkeye produced another smoking gun—a letter revealing Burns' affair with Houlihan, which he threatened to send to Burns' wife. The charges were dropped forthwith.
    Meg Craddy: (Indicating the pregnant villager) This is an example of Henry Blake's work!
    Blake: (aside to himself) Great, That's all I need now!
  • My Name Is Earl at Joy's trial the prosecutor introduces a surprise audio recording that shows Joy's bad character. You'd think there would be a law that says stuff like that has to be disclosed to the defence...
  • A variation in The Chicago Code, though not specifically confined to a trial. The CPD has been trying to indict Alderman Gibbons for months, and finally get the evidence to arrest him through a series of events that nearly gets their undercover cop killed. Then, when it turns out that the evidence isn't enough to convict him, they discover that Wysocki's brother collected rock-solid evidence of his corruption before he died, which makes everything else moot.
  • Get Smart had an episode where Maxwell Smart was a key witness in the trial of a KAOS agent. To discredit Smart, KAOS tricked him into doing things that made people around him perceive him as delusional. During the trial, Max realized a slip up the KAOS agent did that could expose the plot.
  • Boston Legal: One episode featured a witness for the prosecution surprising everyone by stating he filmed the crime. Despite the defence having not been previously made aware of the evidence, Sally Heap, the defendant's attorney, didn't object to its inclusion, which lead to her being berated by one of her superiors at Crane, Poole and Schmidt. She explained that she felt it wasn't the prosecutor's fault. (Which shows she doesn't know the rules, or she'd know that, prosecutor's fault or not, she could - and therefore should - have objected). Despite the defendant having been acquitted, this case is implied to be a reason Alan Shore didn't try to keep her from being fired in a later episode.
  • The Canadian TV series Exhibit A Case Studies In Forensic Science played with this trope in its accounts of Canadian crime investigations. At some point during each episode, host Graham Greene (Actor) would present what he called "Exhibit A", the piece of evidence that typically broke the case for the police.
  • Divorce Court, Superior Court and The Judge: A bread-and-butter staple of these 1980s courtroom dramas. In more than a few episodes, the defense will rest its case before the prosecution will play its ace with a surprise piece of evidence, almost always which leads to conviction of the defendant. Sometimes subverted, as it will be a key prosecution witness who will be exposed with a piece of surprise evidence, and the defendant will be acquitted or, at the very least, a plea deal will be brokered or mistrial will be declared.
  • Happens at least twice in the first series of Murder One:
    • In one side trial, the defence attorney attempts to introduce medical evidence and a medical expert witness at a late stage; the prosecution objects on the grounds of reciprocal discovery, but the defence attorney shoots back that she has sent him copies of the medical file and left him several messages. Since the evidence proves that the young man on trial has a cancerous brain tumour that is likely responsible for his erratic behaviour, and will kill him if not treated, the judge allows the evidence. The prosecutor agrees to dismiss the case.
    • An absolutely key piece of evidence in the main trial is obtained by the defence team very late in the case - leading to them spending most of an entire episode trying to get it verified, admitted into evidence, and finally used in court.
  • Episode "Rules of Engagement" of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine features this in two identical lists of passengers.

    Video Games 
  • Ace Attorney:
    • This concept is explicitly allowed by the law system of this series; even if a piece of evidence is not registered before the trial, attorneys are permitted to introduce said evidence as long as the person introducing it can prove that it is relevant to the case when they do so.
    • Subverted in case 1-5: presenting a piece of unapproved evidence too soon will point the gun at the wrong person, cause the judge to give you a one hundred percent penalty, and force the player to reload. You have to trick Damon Gant, who is both the witness at the time and the chief of police, into tying the evidence to the case through his testimony, and more importantly tying himself to the evidence as the one responsible for its existence as opposed to merely concealing it; you can then present it and win the trial.
    • Subverted at the end of case 2-4, where Gumshoe and Franziska work desperately to get apparently crucial evidence to the courtroom before the end of the trial, and Phoenix keeps stalling for time to the point that the Judge is seriously pissed, only for the evidence to be (apparently) completely worthless. While none of them have no traditional bearing on the court case, one of them is instead shown to the hitman who committed the murder for the defendant, causing him to sever all ties with him by making him his next target, scaring him into wanting a Guilty verdict.
    • This is doubly subverted in case 3-3, where Gumshoe gets the fingerprints on a bottle of medicine owned by the victim tested and confirmed to be that of the witness, Furio Tigre, and this occurs at the very last second. However, since the witness has already admitted that he met with the victim, the fingerprints are just redundant evidence that don't prove that the witness actually murdered the victim. Then Phoenix pulls the old trick of lying about the evidence in order to trick the witness into revealing knowledge about the murder. So the evidence was crucial after all.
    • Professor Layton vs. Ace Attorney:
      • Happens at the beginning of the first witch trial. Layton shows up with the Grand Grimoire, which contains all the information on the magic the witches can use, giving Phoenix a leg to stand on in the setting's alien logic, as his client is accused of witchcraft.
      • Happens in the last trial. Layton goes off to study the town's obligatory secret, which he feels is relevant to Phoenix's case, and he returns just in time to take the inquisitor's place, as she has been called as a witness and Layton says he can prove your client's guilt. Subverted, though, as Layton has no intention of convicting Espella. He just takes the role of prosecutor so the trial can continue and the truth about Espella's innocence can be proven.
  • In Daughter for Dessert, inverted and defied by Moe Mortelli at the protagonist's trial. What nobody expected beforehand was the extent that Mortelli screwed up all the evidence that would have convicted his friend.

    Western Animation 
  • The Simpsons:
    • The animation cel in one episode which revealed the true creator of Itchy and Scratchy.
    • In "Bart the Murderer", Bart is about to be found guilty of the murder of Principal Skinner when Skinner shows up and explains what really happened.
  • In one episode of Gargoyles: The Goliath Chronicles, Goliath clears his name of jewelry theft by conning a confession out of the real thief and getting it on tape, then arriving in the courtroom with the thief and the tape.
  • The Christmas special Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer has the grandson Jake clearing Santa's name with surprise evidence and no backing from anyone other than his own knowledge by proving the real culprit his Cousin Mel. To do this, he enters the courtroom, states that Cousin Mel gave the cake that grandma had "Reindeer Nip", which caused the reindeer to make a U turn and slam into her. That, along with a note that says essentially "It's okay, I'm Santa, I'm going to take your grandmother to the north pole to heal" causes his cousin to confess and get herself arrested. There's no proof that the cake he has is indeed the right cake, nor proof there is "reindeer nip", and no proof that he and the defense aren't pulling a Frame-Up, but the judge accepts it and his cousin outs herself instead of countering with the previous logic of "prove it". Almost as if the writers knew this was impossible, the prosecution attempts to object, and the judge never acknowledges that he said anything and lets Jake keep talking.

    Real Life 
  • The infamous Watergate scandal. U.S. President Richard Nixon was ultimately forced to give up a tape recording that proved irrefutably that he did indeed try to cover up his participation in the breaking in of the Watergate building. Rather than face impeachment trials, Nixon resigned.
  • The damages hearing of Alex Jones in Texas who was being sued for saying Sandy Hook was a False Flag Attack and/or staged, which led to the parents of the killed children and teachers being harassed. One of the reasons Jones had been found guilty by default in a previous hearing, was that he had failed to turn over material that had been subpoenaed by the opposing counsel, claiming it didn't exist or couldn't be found. During his cross examination by Mark Bankston, the attorney produced a series of text messages from Jones' own phone about Sandy Hook that hadn't been turned over, proving he lied on the stand when he testified he'd "done everything" to comply. Jones for his part replied calling it a "Perry Mason moment".
    • To clarify, the reason this was so unexpected was the texts were not intentionally turned over - his own attorney, Federico Reynal, had intended to send a subset of phone data to Bankston but inadvertently sent an entire copy of the phone's data instead. That copy then sat in Bankston's laptop untouched for ten days waiting for Reynal to try and claw it back, so it could only be read during the trial, mere days before Jones was set to testify.