Somebody has died. Often, several people have died. The evidence all points to one particular man (and it usually is a man). Everything implies that he did it, and the case looks almost over. Except that then something awful happens: your prime suspect dies. Only by dying could he prove his innocence—too late for them to be all that relieved about it.
Often it's the actual culprit who commits the murder. If the killer knows that his victim is a suspect, and the murder was avoidable, this is obviously a bad move on his part, as it usually shakes the detectives out of their complacency and forces them to look at other suspects, including the actual killer, anew.
This can be done in the case of other crimes. They almost always are serious crimes, however, since otherwise upping the ante to murder is a fairly stupid risk. Killing somebody who caught you stealing from the cookie jar is right out unless it's the end result of a steadily escalating stream of cover-up crimes.
A standard way of revealing that a certain avenue of plot is a Red Herring, and is fairly common in Cop Shows, Spy Dramas, and Thrillers, although TV series tend to be fairly careful about overusing this particular trope, or they would lose the audience's trust. Often used as the reveal when Your Princess Is in Another Castle!. Suspect Existence Failure victims often have a habit of popping up as Peek A Boo Corpses.
A common subversion, of course, is that the suspect actually is the killer, and was faking his Existence Failure all along. Another possibility is that the suspect was the killer you were looking for and just happened to be killed by someone else (perhaps using the same MO, trusting that his solid alibi for the murders he didn't commit would keep him from being suspected for the one he did). Yet another possibility is that the suspect might have been framed and killed so that he couldn't prove his innocence.
Compare Guilty Until Someone Else Is Guilty, which also uses ironclad evidence to prove a suspect's innocence, and Never the Obvious Suspect. Frequently overlaps with Asshole Victim, since that makes them even more suspect.
As a Death Trope, all spoilers will be unmarked ahead. Beware.
- The The Calming Detective, Osomatsu skit of Osomatsu-san, being a parody of detective stories, plays it uniquely. In it, the characters are investigating a serial murder case. With Ichimatsu plainly standing in the background carrying bloody weapons and wearing Jason mask. Then he died later in the episode. It's unique since only the viewers experience this trope. The characters never notices Ichimatsu's existence at all, not even when he was chasing Detective Osomatsu with weapons in hand.
- The Kindaichi Case Files: Once happens in "Opera House Third Murder Case". All evidence pointed at a certain person, and thus that person was locked with the key on constant watch. The next day, that person was found murdered. It was deliberately set up by the real killer to create this locked-room situation.
- Batman: The Gotham City Police Department once has a prime suspect in a series of brutal killings with a veritable mountain of damning evidence against him, up to and including his going around and bragging to everyone who would listen that he did it all. It turns out that all of the evidence is manipulated or outright fabricated because the guy is trying to make a name for himself of another's deeds. For reasons beyond human understanding, he decided to pick Gotham's most infamous and self-aggrandizing mass-murderer to bite off from — The Joker. No bonus points for guessing how it ends for him.
- Gary Larson drew a Far Side strip that had a detective surveying a rhinoceros with a knife in its back and the caption: "Blast! Up to now, the rhino had been my prime suspect!"
- In Scream (1996), Billy soulfully asks Sidney what he has to do to prove his innocence. A second later, the killer leaps into the room and stabs him. Because Scream never met a trope it didn't want to play with, it turns out Billy's the killer anyway. He had an accomplice, and they engineered the whole thing to screw with Sidney. Earlier in the film, a non-fatal example occurred when Billy was arrested on suspicion of being the killer, only for Sidney to receive a call from his accomplice taunting her for having "fingered the wrong guy".
- In Scream 3, Roman does this by faking his death in order to throw off suspicion. Originally, he too would have had an accomplice, but the film's Troubled Production saw substantial rewrites that made him the sole killer, leading to plot holes as to how he could've done it.
- In Chaos Theory, a cop gets blown up just as a fishy smell hits the air. In the usual subversion, he is not actually that dead in the end...
- Agent Kujan from The Usual Suspects tells the same subversion story about Dean Keaton. Sometime in the past, when Keaton was among suspects for some crimes, he dies. Then, in a few months, witnesses die too, someone else gets convicted, and you guess it, Dean Keaton turns up quite alive and well. This episode is presented by Dave Kujan as a pinnacle of Keaton's evil, so they appear to be quite genre-savvy in that regard.
- Tim Burton's Sleepy Hollow (1999). A variant in that everyone knows that the Headless Horseman is doing all the killing, but they're trying to find the person controlling him. Lady Van Tassel decapitates a maid to serve as her corpse.
- In Murder Mystery, this keeps happening. Nick will find an excellent suspect, only for them to come up dead in the next scene...
- In Sherlock Holmes novel A Study in Scarlet, Lestrade is prepared to arrest his suspect, only to find that he's already been murdered.
- The trope occurs several times in Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None. Ultimately subverted and then played straight, as the murderer faked his death precisely to eliminate himself as a suspect. Of course, then it is ultimately played straight as he then commits suicide to complete his perfect crime and, again, eliminate himself as a suspect.
- In Death Note: Another Note, the Los Angeles BB Murder Cases, Rue Ryuzaki, a.k.a. Beyond Birthday, plans to create a case that L can't solve by committing suicide and making it look like a murder. Up until this point we're led to believe that it's L, not Beyond Birthday actually doing it.
- In The Ninja, the antagonist Saigo uses the fake version of this to throw law enforcement and the antagonist Nicholas off the trail, killing a man of very similar build and chucking him off a high tower block face-first to fool identification procedures. (The novel is set in 1980 before routine DNA analysis).
- In Death: This trope popped up in Innocent In Death. After Craig Foster's murder, Eve Dallas ends up focusing on Reed Williams as the prime suspect. Take a wild guess on what happens next.
- Parodied in The Macbeth Murder Mystery by James Thurber. "At first I suspected Banquo. And then, of course, he was the second person killed. That was good right in there, that part. The person you suspect of the first murder should always be the second victim."
- In the Lost episode "The Other 48 Days", Nathan was suspected of being a spy from the Others. He was murdered by the real spy, Goodwin, who hid the body and let the other survivors believe that he had escaped. In this case, the action was justified in the dialogue, as he was worried that further interrogation from Ana Lucia would eventually prove that she had the wrong guy.
- Done repeatedly in Forensic Drama series such as CSI and Bones.
- Not used as much as one would suspect in the various Law & Order series, but one notable example from the SVU series involved the demise of a rapist whom everyone was convinced had killed his victim. His death started them thinking that her killer had an entirely different motive.
- Another notable example is from the original series, when a doctor who's supposed to be giving vital testimony in his daughter's case (she's up for murder, her defense is that it was assisted suicide) kills himself on the stand (via poison he administered several hours beforehand.) This, obviously, calls for a mistrial and gets him out of facing consequences even though he'd practically admitted that there were less-than-merciful motives for the "assisted suicide" all along.
- Subverted in an episode of The Persuaders! where Brett's relatives are being murdered: all the suspects die... then it's revealed that one of them was actually the murderer, and faked his death because he knew that would clear him.
- Done similarly in a Ten Little Murder Victims episode of Remington Steele.
- Ditto for a similar episode of the television program The Wild Wild West, "The Night of the Tontine".
- And the John Steed/Emma Peel The Avengers (1960s). At least once.
- The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. has a Ten Little Murder Victims episode with a gathering of Bounty Hunters at a secluded hotel.
- In The Twilight Zone (1959) episode "Shadow Play", Dennis Weaver is on Death Row trying to convince people that the world is a nightmare he keeps having, night after night, over and over again. The Warden is finally convinced he must be insane and calls the Governor to ask for a stay. The stay comes too late, the electric chair is fired up, and we find he was right: everyone else dies, and his nightmare starts all over again.
- Canadian comedy team Wayne and Schuster did a Sherlock Holmes skit in which everyone Holmes accused of being the murderer would then be killed in a different way, in some cases a quite ridiculous way. When he finally got down to accusing the butler, a B-52 flying overhead dropped a load of bombs, and the butler was crushed by rubble. Then Holmes realized the truth; as he told Dr. Watson: "We're in the wrong bloody house!"
- One episode of Psych had Shawn suspect a fashion mogul of killing her husband right up until she died at his funeral. He then commented, "Okay, probably not the wife." Ultimately subverted when it's learned that she actually did kill him. She died from the delayed effects of him poisoning her.
- As the show reaches its later seasons, this trope starts occurring almost Once per Episode.
- In the Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode "Killed by Death", the Scoobies become convinced that the villain killing the sick children in the hospital is the creepy (and, it turns out, criminally negligent to the point of malpractice lawsuits) Doctor Backer... until Backer himself is killed by the invisible monster that is actually killing the children.
- In Sanctuary's first season episode "Kush", there's a crash, followed by several murders. When they settle things down by supposedly catching the suspect, he's killed and they have to reexamine their "fool-proof" method of determining the killer.
- The Columbo episode "Last Salute to the Commodore" starts out as a normal episode, with us seeing Charles Clay disposing of the victim's body and setting up his alibi, Lt. Columbo comes in and starts his usual harassing of the suspect, and then halfway through Clay turns up dead, and the episode suddenly turns into a Whodunnit.
- This formula is repeated in "A Bird in the Hand". Incidentally, both episodes were scripted by Columbo veteran Jackson Gillis.
- The pilot has the suspect Peter Saldua turn up dead. It turns out that Saldua was the one who killed the victim, her husband manipulated him into doing it and killed him, and made it look like suicide.
- "Solve for X": Holmes calls Bell to tell him who he thinks the killer is, and before he has a chance to say so, Bell informs him about another victim, naturally the same man.
- In the episode of La caméra explore le temps dealing with the murder of the Duchess of Praslin, the Duke commits suicide by swallowing arsenic after his arrest, as he did in history. There is little doubt that he killed his wife anyway, the only real question being "why?", but his death came just at the right moment to spare the Chamber of Peers from having to try one of theirs.
- In the NBC Hannibal, the eponymous cannibal occasionally amuses himself by causing serial killings that he isn't responsible for to have Suspect Existence Failure.
- Inspector Lynley: "A Traitor to Memory", Lynley and Havers were almost certain that it was ex-husband Richard who killed Eugenie Martin until he is murdered in the same way.
- The best part? in the original novel, Richard was the killer - it was switched to Raphael due to Adaptation Distillation (see above), so they weren't actually that far off.
- Murder Rooms: "The White Knight Stratagem".
- Benson had a two-part episode ("Death in a Funny Position") where a millionaire invited the Governor and his staff to join him on a cruise on his yacht. During this, the millionaire is murdered. They have a likely suspect, only for him to die as well. It turns out the millionaire faked his death so he could kill the suspect.
- An episode of Family Matters has an imaginary parody of detective works with Urkel as the detective. Every time Urkel would accuse someone of the murders, thunder would make the lights go off briefly and that person would be found dead. Laura is the murderer. Urkel then reveals that he knew it was her all along and was letting her kill everyone else so they could be together with no interference. She promptly calls the police and confesses to murdering seven people.
- In the Lost Tapes episode "Werewolf", a group of cops are following a man who is suspected of committing a series of grisly, animalistic murders throughout the city. They follow him home where they see him enter with a woman he had picked up at a bar. The cops rush in after they hear screaming coming from inside the house, only to find the corpse of their suspect, revealing that the woman he brought home was the real killer, and a werewolf to boot.
- Discussed Trope in You (2018). Under the assumption that Joe is writing a mystery (and unaware that he's actually involved in a murder plot), the Genre Savvy Nadia discusses common mystery fiction tropes. She mentions that the first suspect tends to be the second victim. She is proven right when the person Joe initially thought would be Malcolm's murder, Simon, with whom there was blackmail involved, turns up dead.
- Among Us: If everyone suspects someone being an imposter, their innocence will only be proven if an actual imposter kills them. (Or if they actually get ejected, and the game says they were not the imposter.)
- Ace Attorney:
- A very tragic example occurs in case 4 of Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney – Trials and Tribulations. Mia is on the verge of proving Terry Fawles innocent of murder, only needing a little more testimony from him to reveal the true culprit. However, Terry is hopelessly in love with said true culprit, Dahlia Hawthorne, who is able to manipulate him into poisoning himself. What's worse, it's heavily implied that this was always the plan for after Terry outlived his usefulness.
- Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney:
- A non-lethal variant happened in the flashback case, where the defendant, a famous stage magician, pulled a vanishing act when it looked like he was going to lose. They never found him again, so the case was declared a mistrial.
- The final case had the prime suspect of a poisoning case collapse while on the witness stand, having somehow ingested the same type of poison that killed the victim. This does not absolve her of guilt, as the prosecution claims that she attempted suicide out of remorse. As the suspect was still alive but in critical condition following the collapse, the prosecution insists that they finish the trial and come to a verdict before the suspect actually dies, since a verdict can't be assigned to a dead person.
- The fourth case of Ace Attorney Investigations begins this way. The defendant is accused of murder. But then, he claims his prosecutor (who wasn't his prosecutor yet) told him to do it. The case is put on hold until a new prosecutor is found (this being Miles Edgeworth, the player character). But then, both the defendant and the original prosecutor are found dead in a room guarded from the outside.
- The sequel's second victim is the guy Edgeworth had pinned as the culprit of the previous case, and who was also made the main suspect for a fake assassination attempt on the President of Zheng Fa (he was actually innocent of this one).
- Played with in Discworld Noir. Vimes definitely sees Lewton dying as this, but Lewton had actually managed to come Back from the Dead (not that he was guilty of the murders anyway).
Vimes: My lead suspect was killed.
Vetinari: Hmmmm... that is very unfortunate.
Vimes: It certainly was for Lewton.
- The left side of the flowchart in AI: The Somnium Files plays with this. People who the evidence points to as having committed each crime continually end up as the next victims, but it turns they did each commit the murder prior, or at least their bodies did.
- A Garry's Mod game mode named Trouble in Terrorist Town can have this happen as a traitor kills a suspect or even more likely the innocents killing off a suspect who was actually innocent.
- Hidden City: "Crime at the Wedding" has the player help the Detective and the Huntress investigate a possible murder attempt towards Abner Old. The clues seem to point towards Douglas Dunn, his would-be bride's father, but before the investigators can interrogate him, his wife report that he's been poisoned, although he survives. It is revealed that his wife is the killer. She has planned to poison Abner to save her daughter from having to marry him after Douglas practically sold her off to the man to pay his debts. She touches her husband while still having traces of poison on her hands (she had used enchantments to protect herself from its adverse effects), almost killing him in the process.
- Parodied in Futurama, "Anthology of Interest", where Zoidberg's summation is repeatedly interrupted by this. Further twisting it is that the new victims each figure out who the real killer is seconds before their deaths (which is why they get killed).
- Unnecessarily lampshaded just before the end of Robot Chicken's "Michael Jackson vs. Michael Jackson" sketch.
- Sherlock Holmes in the 22nd Century: In "The Five Orange Pips", things seem to point toward the poisoning victim's shifty-looking brother; moments after Watson becomes the first to voice the suspicion, the brother is poisoned too.
- In one episode of Be Cool, Scooby-Doo!, the gang is at a staged murder mystery party, wherein everyone knows the ghost is fake. Shaggy and Scooby discover they're actually good at following the evidence to solve a mystery, as long as it's safe. Unbeknownst to them, there's a "real" ghost gathering the players one-by-one, in addition to the scheduled shenanigans. When Shaggy's ready to announce the "killer," he runs through every guest at the party, finding out each time that they've been taken by the "real" ghost.