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The Perry Mason Method

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Would you believe that isn't Perry Mason?

Mia Fey: What's wrong, Phoenix?
Phoenix Wright: Usually... Well, usually, the real killer confesses his or her guilt. And now that I think about it, this is the first time someone hasn't.

When the only possible way for a lawyer to save his client is to badger a confession out of a witness on the stand in the courtroom. Sub-Trope of Perp Sweating. Frequently stems from Accusing the Witness. The result is usually a Motive Rant. The first step is often to Pull the Thread.

This is a popular way to avert the Fridge Logic inherent in Conviction by Contradiction; in this case, catching the witness in a lie doesn't prove they're the culprit; it just convinces them the jig is up so they'll convict themselves by confessing. When played straight, this one is also a subtrope of Hollywood Law—defense attorneys often discredit witnesses through various means and posit other potential suspects (named or unnamed), but forcing a confession is difficult to do without being disbarred. In the United States and the United Kingdom, forcing the defense to prove that someone else is guilty is Shifting the Burden of Proof (in a criminal case), but this is rarely mentioned in media, as it removes the "solve the mystery" element.

Averting this trope is one reason why in Real Life defence attorneys usually try and avoid calling their client to the stand unless there's absolutely, positively no other choice—the last thing they want is their client getting flustered and goaded into coming out with something potentially incriminating before a jury.

Named for the iconic 1957-1966 Law Procedural TV series Perry Mason, in which Perry's client was always innocent, and Perry always won the day by getting the guilty party to confess on the stand during cross-examination. A sub-trope of Unconventional Courtroom Tactics. Similar to The CSI Effect, where juries demand forensic evidence no matter how hard to find or malleable it may be.


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    Anime and Manga 
  • Case Closed: 95% of the perps confess after 'Sleeping Koguro' (Conan using tranquilizers and a voice modulator) systematically deduces how it could only be the perp, usually in an attempt to give a Freudian Excuse. About 5% are just bad people who want to boast about it anyway.

    Comic Books 
  • Perry Mason's success rate was parodied in one episode of "Little Annie Fanny". As soon as the police announced that detective "Mason Dixon" was investigating, some random nearby onlooker would scream out "I confess! I confess! I haven't got a chance if Mason Dixon is on the case!"
  • One strip of The Far Side has a cow confess to the crime while serving on the jury.
  • In Youngblood: Judgment Day, Toby King relentlessly pursues the details behind a book missing from Riptide's room after her murder, gradually uncovering an intimate connection between a certain member of Youngblood and that book. This eventually causes Sentinel to fly into a fit of rage and attack King; he grabs at the book and curses King for ruining his plan, outing himself as the murderer.

  • Subverted in the film Catch Me If You Can — con artist Frank Abagnale Jr. attempts to use this technique while posing as a lawyer, having seen Perry Mason do it on TV; after his climactic accusation, the judge sternly informs him that he is at a preliminary hearing and neither the defendant nor the jury are present.
  • Subverted in Bananas when Fielding Mellish gets a key witness against him at his trial to tearfully confess that she was lying ... even though he's gagged and tied to a chair.
  • The climax of A Few Good Men is probably the Trope Codifier: Danny Kaffee pins the futures of both his clients and his own to the hope that his final witness - Colonel Jessup - will confess to having ordered the illegal "Code Red" drill that resulted in the death of the victim. Deconstructed, as Kaffee explains to the rest of the defense team that Jessup wants to confess, because he thinks he did the right thing. Or another way to say it is, he wants to take credit and brag. Still, Kaffee carries this out beautifully, by first catching Jessup in a lie, then appealing to the man's ego by assaulting him with a series of questions (with both Kaffee and Jessup repeatedly ignoring the defense's and the Judge's orders to belay their argument) about the Code Red incident until Jessup gets fed up with Kaffee's supposed defiance and snaps, ranting at the entire courtroom about his actions and confirming he ordered the fatal Code Red, and how none of them could possibly understand the "sacrifices" he made in the name of national defense.
  • In Young Mr. Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln produces an almanac that proves the witness couldn't have seen the murder by moonlight as said witness had claimed. Lincoln then badgers said witness into confessing the murder in open court. This is allegedly based on a real incident.
  • Invoked in Wild Things, where the witness' breakdown in court is staged to make the trial fail. Both the defendant and the two accusers were in on this and as it later turns out, even the cop who handled the case and the defendant's lawyer, who was secretly working for one particular accuser all along.
  • Suspect, in which Cher plays a lawyer defending a deaf-mute Vietnam veteran (Liam Neeson) on a murder charge, may have the über-example; in the climax she unmasks the real murderer who happens to be the very judge presiding over the trial!
  • In Primal Fear, this is set up by lawyer Martin Vail to prove Aaron Stampler's innocence. The prosecution badgers Aaron in an attempt to get him to confess, which causes Aaron's split personality to show up and attack her. However, in a twist it turns out that Stampler didn't actually have a split personality, and went along with Vail's ploy.
  • Works for Elle Woods in Legally Blonde, although she doesn't initially suspect the witness (the daughter of the murder victim). It's when the witness mentions that on the morning her father (the victim) was murdered, she had gone out to get her hair permed and then came home to take a shower that makes Elle realize that there's a flaw in what the woman is saying—Elle, being a fashion-and-beauty expert, knows you should wait at least 24-hours to get your hair wet after getting it permed. After pointing out that little tidbit to the rest of the court (as well as using an example of when a sorority sister of hers had made the mistake of getting her hair wet too soon after getting it permed), Elle performs an aggressive cross-examination, which eventually gets the witness to confess that she's the true murderer. The girl further confesses that she was actually trying to shoot her stepmother, largely because she resented the fact that her father married someone who was her age. Unfortunately, the witness ended up shooting her father by mistake due to being mistaken as to who was coming through the door at the time.
  • In the third possible ending of Clue, Wadsworth uses this to compel all the guests to confess to their respective murders. Miss Scarlet lampshades Wadsworth’s use of this method and even references the Trope Namer.
    Wadsworth: True or false?
    Miss Scarlet: True! Who are you, Perry Mason?

  • Perry Mason
    • Inverted in the The Case of the Angry Mourner where he badgers a witness to get her to confess her innocence so that suspicion can be thrown off his client and onto the real culprit.
    • In the many, many, MANY Perry Mason books, Perry didn't pull this trope all that often. In one, he badgered the witness not to get him to confess, but to get him to tell the court how he stored his money -putting the money, usually twenties, in cans, marking the date on them, and burying them in his junkyard.note  Relevant because twenties the man was carrying came from cans buried two weeks before the robbery, but had serial numbers matching those of twenties claimed to be taken in the robbery.note  The real crook had put a page from the previous payroll into the file for the current one, then made sure their patsy had some of the previously recorded twenties to frame them for the robbery.
  • Isaac Asimov's "Mirror Image": The perpetrator sweating happens off-screen by the ship's captain, but the opportunity is created by Detective Baley after interrogating the robots of both suspects, causing the guilty party's robot to undergo a Logic Bomb due to a Three Laws conflict. He's informed that the guilty party confessed quickly when the evidence of the broken robot is provided.
  • Dave Barry, a fan of Perry Mason, spoofed the idea in their column "Traffic Infraction, He Wrote":
    I have always secretly wanted to be a lawyer. I could picture myself in a major criminal case, getting the best of my opponent through clever verbal sparring and shrewd courtroom maneuvers:
    Me: So, Mr. Teeterhorn, you're telling us that you "can't recall" why you happened to bring a flame-thrower to the bridge tournament?
    Witness: That's right.
    Me: Well, perhaps THIS will help you refresh your memory.
    Opposing Attorney: I object, Your Honor! Mr. Barry is badgering the witness!
    Me (coolly): Your Honor, as these documents clearly prove, Rex here is a wolverine.
    Judge (examining the documents): Okay, I'll allow it.
  • Judge Dee: Judge Dee sometimes does this, occasionally even using torture, and he's the judge. Justified in that convictions in his setting (AD 600s China) had to be obtained through confessions. Some villains would hold out even when incontrovertible proof was being displayed.
  • In Eric, or Little by Little, The Bully Barker frames Eric for writing a master an insulting note. Instead of flogging Eric right away, the headmaster Dr Rowlands decides to have a trial. Russell, the boy defending Eric, uncovers several pieces of evidence that Eric was framed. When Owen testifies that he found the paper Barker wrote on while learning to copy Eric's handwriting, Barker breaks down and confesses. Barker is forced to run a gauntlet of dozens of boys beating him with knotted handkerchiefs, then is caned and expelled.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Almost every episode of Perry Mason ever made. In one of the TV movies (late 80s-early 90s), a middle-aged woman's alibi involved changing a flat tire. Mason has a worker demonstrate how lugnuts are tightened at the shop using an air wrench, and invites her to show the court how she was able to remove them without power tools. She couldn't. This was itself a use of Conviction by Counterfactual Clue; if it really was impossible to remove lugnuts that had been tightened with an air wrench, no one would be able to change a tire except a mechanic with an air wrench; the usual method for too-tight bolts is adding a pipe or other length to add leverage.
  • Perry Mason (2020): Discussed and subverted. We see Perry trying this with Ennis on the stand, but then there is a cut to reveal that he is just rehearsing the examination with his associates (we are seeing his mental picture of how it will turn out). After some heated discussion, Perry is persuaded not to recall Ennis, since he will never get a confession in open court: all the evidence is circumstantial and Ennis will just deny everything.
  • Discussed in the second Columbo pilot. When Columbo is Perp Sweating the Black Widow Amoral Attorney, she states that she's "familiar with the Perry Mason school of justice" but it won't work since she could just counter it by playing the victim and pointing out how he's hounded her from the beginning.
  • Matlock almost always proved his client's innocence by interrogating the real killer in court; usually not by getting an actual confession, though.
  • Running Monty Python's Flying Circus character Mr. Bartlett tries this sort of thing sometimes (even on parking offences), but quickly gets sidetracked, as even he has no idea what his point is. He turned out to be right, when one of his character witnesses was revealed not to be Cardinal Richelieu at all, although it wasn't Bartlett who figured this out.
  • Law & Order doesn't usually trigger a simple confession: Mason Moments usually set up either the Mandatory Twist Ending ("Yeah, I did it. But you were wrong about why!") or the Red Herring Twist ("He didn't do it. I did. Really.") Also, more often than not the lawyer will be stopped by an objection before he can extract his confession.
    • Jack McCoy set a witness up to be Perry Masoned by the defense counsel in the episode "Homesick."
    • One particularly memorable three-parter ("D-Girl"/"Turnaround"/"Showtime") involved a defendant who was a famous movie director with a powerful legal team that had managed to stymie most of McCoy's usual legal wrangling. When McCoy eventually managed to get him on the stand, however, he essentially goaded the director by playing his ego with the knowledge that the victim, his ex-wife and producer, had basically wrecked his career by spitefully blocking his desired projects and forcing him to work on films that were beneath him. The director eventually explodes, grabs the murder weapon and screams "That vindictive bitch, I could have made something —" before he calms down enough to realize he's been lured into this trope. And this happened after McCoy basically lampshaded what he was doing.
  • The character Speedo, in That Mitchell and Webb Look, is a parody of this in his prosecuting style: "Did you kill that woman?! Did you kill that woman?! Did you kill that woman?!", which is entirely ineffective until he pulls out a gun and shoots it above the witness' head, at which point he agrees "Yes! Yes whatever you say!"
  • Subverted in the JAG episode "Killer Instinct", because lead counsel Harmon Rabb knows that the defendant is too smart to confess on the stand in the usual Perry Mason style. It's only when co-counsel Bud Roberts obfuscates stupidity that the defendant makes a confession in an outburst of rage.
  • Done in an episode of Harry's Law when a mother was accused of killing her newborn baby, born without a brain. Harry, the mother's lawyer, took to accusing a nurse who had been attending the birth of being the real killer (noting that, for example, the baby's neck had been snapped expertly, by someone who had medical training), and the nurse broke down and confessed.
  • In an episode of The Jack Benny Program (1961), Jack gets a ticket for a noisy rooster. He then has a dream where he is on trial for murdering the rooster. He employs the greatest lawyer ever, Perry Mason (played by Raymond Burr in a terrific comedy turn) but dream Mason turns out to be an idiot (he tries dressing as Abraham Lincoln to sway the judge) and is soundly trounced by the guy who says "Yeeeeeeesssssss". Mason even winds up getting himself to confess that he was the one who really murdered the rooster at the end.
  • Inverted in The Tick (2001) episode "The Tick Versus Justice." Destroyo, acting as his own attorney, asks witness Arthur a loaded question, which Arthur answers in such a way as to provoke a Villainous Breakdown and confession from Destroyo.
  • Discussed in season 2 episode 5 of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, when Midge and Benjamin are attending a stage adaptation of the Lizzie Borden trial. They find the play so boring that they walk out at intermission before the second act (which contains the trial), and Benjamin admits he hates that "Perry Mason crap".
  • Psych: "Cloudy... With A Chance Of Murder" features Shawn and Gus making their way onto the defense team of a woman Shawn believes to be innocent. Naturally, it ends with Shawn figuring out the real killer and badgering them into a Villainous Breakdown on the stand. Most of his cases end this way, actually, but this was the only one in a courtroom setting.
  • Burden of Truth: Joanna uses this to win at trial in Season 2, getting a witness she herself called to confess to being the real murderer.
  • Discussed and played with in the Better Call Saul episode "Chicanery." Jimmy's brother Chuck, who is testifying against Jimmy at his bar hearing, accuses Jimmy of trying to rile him up so he would break down and go on a Motive Rant "like an episode of Perry Mason." However, this ends up being almost exactly what happens—and Chuck's rant severely discredits the prosecution's testimony, causing Jimmy to only get a 1-year suspension instead of total disbarment.

    Video Games 
  • The title character of Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney does this in nearly every single case, apropos to his role as a Perry Mason stand-in. He misses the mark in case 2-4: the person he badgers is really innocent (and the fact that the method didn't work cues him in that something else is going on), and his client was actually a Magnificent Bastard/Sociopath who hired an assassin and was planning to blackmail him. In fact this is directly called out by Godot in the final case of the third game. Even after Phoenix proves that his client is innocent through a very convoluted set of explanations, Godot insists that the trial must continue because they haven't found out who the culprit is yet. And everyone just goes with it even though it leads to his own conviction.
    • The same thing happens in the third case of the first game, where Phoenix proves his client couldn't have committed the murder beyond a shadow of a doubt about halfway through the case, but the trial must continue because the actual culprit hasn't been exposed. In this case, it plays off more like the trial becoming an ongoing investigation - neither the prosecution nor the judge seem to seriously think the defendant is guilty any more, and seem genuinely curious about the truth, but your client still goes to jail if you fail.
    • Though one case has Phoenix concerned that even if he does get his client acquitted, the real killer might still go free, so it's clearly not always an either/or scenario.
    • Reportedly at least partially Truth in Television in Japan. The seemingly ludicrous success rates of convictions and absurd amount of power the fictional prosecutors hold aren't as unrealistic as one might hope, and Phoenix's apparent high success rate would be thought just as ludicrous in Japan, and his Perpetual Poverty is not a far cry from reality.
    • We also get three aversions in Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney. The first case only worked because Phoenix forged some evidence (that Kristoph couldn't reveal without admitting to stealing the original evidence and committing the crime), the third case only worked because Apollo convinced the accomplice that you can't be killed for smuggling in the US/Japan and so he had no reason not to talk, and the fourth case had to be done as a Jury trial as it was impossible to have enough evidence to pin the crime on Kristoph. The jury trial runs on reasonable doubt, which is enough to save the defendant.
    • Funnily enough, The Movie subverts this several times, in order to be a Pragmatic Adaptation. The most notable instance is during the trial of Redd White. Phoenix is able to use evidence to prove that White was in the room, and then demands that he confess to killing Mia. White insists that Phoenix can only prove that he'd broken into the room on the night of the murder, and not that he actually committed the murder. The judge admits that this is true, but still declares Maya Not Guilty because White's initial testimony was clearly a lie.
    • This trope is averted in Dual Destinies. Case 4 ends without Phoenix identifying the real murderer, only having done enough to prove that it could not be his client though Athena is immediately arrested due to incriminating evidence. The killer is not identified until near the end of Case 5.
  • In the 1st Degree plays with this trope. Certainly you, the prosecutor, can try to badger the witness into confessing. However, it does not seem to work very much.
  • There is an obscure text adventure called Perry Mason: The Case of the Mandarin Murder. Getting the best ending requires you to do this.
  • Do everything right in the first case of Aviary Attorney and this plays out, the witness losing his temper and threatening to gut you with his claws, which is what happened to the victim. Cruelly subverted as it turns out the defendant was guilty, thought you knew it too, and is happy to profit off an innocent man being executed.


    Western Animation 
  • The Simpsons
    • In "Sideshow Bob Roberts", Lisa and Bart get Sideshow Bob to confess to rigging an election by suggesting that he wouldn't be smart enough to do it on his own.
    Sideshow Bob: Only I could have engineered such a masterpiece of electoral fraud!
    • In "The Frying Game", Chief Wiggum tries to get Homer and Marge to confess to murder by repeatedly shouting "Did you do it?" at random points in his questioning. After the interrogation, he admits it never works...after Homer uses the same method on him to get him to admit thus.
    • Subverted and parodied in "The Boy Who Knew Too Much", when Mayor Quimby's nephew is on trial for assault. Firstly, the jury thinks he is guilty (though he isn't) because he is a jerkass with a Hair-Trigger Temper who at one point is provoked into ranting that he'll kill everyone in the courtroom; second, the guy who provoked him was his own lawyer who was trying to show that he was not a jerkass with a violent temper by asking him an innocent question that turned out to be Quimby Jr.'s Berserk Button.

    Real Life 
  • During his 1983 trial for the murder of a Maryland police officer, Harlow Brian Sails broke down on the witness stand during cross-examination and confessed to the killing. News reports at the time called it a "Perry Mason moment."
  • In the 2022 lawsuit filed against Alex Jones by families of victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre over his long insistance that the massacre wasn't real and encouraging listeners of his show to harass and attack them, Jones was finally called up to the stand for cross examination during deliberations over damages. The plaintiffs' attorney then revealed that Jones's lawyer had accidentally forwarded him the entire records of Alex Jones's cellphone from the last two years, which included Jones admitting that he knew the massacre was real. Jones admitted to committing perjury and news reports covering the trial called it "a real Perry Mason moment."
  • During Gertrude Baniszewski's trial for abusing and killing Sylvia Likens in 1965, her young daughter Marie was called to testify in her defence that she had never seen her mother hurt Sylvia. However, under the relentless questioning of the prosecutor, 11-year-old Marie soon broke down and admitted that she had indeed seen her mother beating Sylvia and ordering her teenage accomplices to torture her. Gertrude was found guilty.


Video Example(s):


Legally Blonde

Elle Woods uses her knowledge of hair care to trap a witness.

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Main / ThePerryMasonMethod

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