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Vera: An '83 job can wait, Lilly. Come on.
Lilly: No, it can't. It's waited long enough.
— "Gleen"
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A cold case is a criminal investigation that has been rendered inactive and unsolved due to a lack of evidence, witnesses, or suspects to form a solid lead. When new evidence does show up, it's a long, difficult, and painful process to peel back the layers of dust covering it and try to put the new lead into context with what's already known about the case, and where that may lead, no one knows.

This is the basis of Cold Case (2003-2010), a Jerry Bruckheimer-created crime drama that forms one corner of his crime drama trifecta (along with CSI and Without a Trace, both of which had crossovers with the show note ). Far less science or legalese-absorbed than the other Bruckheimer-verse installments, Cold Case instead focuses on the human aspect of a crime, and how the victims, witnesses, and criminals are affected by the crime both at the time of its commission and in the years afterwards.

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One of the most interesting aspects of the show was that each episode played out as a Period Piece, as the bulk of the story is told through flashbacks strongly reflecting the time when the crime was committed and the culture surrounding those involved. For instance, the Flashback Effects are In the Style of... a prominent cinematic and audio style of each period- the story of a young man from the wrong side of the tracks in the 70's resembles a grindhouse flick, the story of a conflicted teen in the 80's recalls the look and sound of Degrassi Junior High. The music for each episode was of course a Nothing but Hits medley of that period's music (though credit is due for scrounging up some obscure hits from time to time). Timeshifted Actors are employed to strong effect, juxtaposed with their future/present-day selves, showing how the effects of a crime can ripple through decades and generations. Also expect a bit of a history lesson with each episode, as a great many of the cases have something to do with something historically significant at the time (for instance, one of the oldest cases deals with women's suffrage). It's also brutal about "The Good Old Days", blatantly showing them to be every bit as bad (or worse) than present day. Expect at least two or three episodes a season to deal with themes of racism or homophobia.

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The emotionally-driven nature of the show means that it will most likely not interest those interested in the "hard science" of crime solving. However, it is, in general, well done and more suited to those looking for something more emotionally-involving.

Based on the A&E reality show Cold Case Files and many suspect also the Canadian series, Cold Squad. In 2016 a remake titled ''Cold Case: Shinjitsu no Tobira" aired in Japan, with each episode based directly on episodes from the original American show with three seasons already airing there. Specifically 


This show provides examples of:

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  • Aborted Arc: The seventh season sets up a whole smattering of interesting-sounding plotlines, including new love interests for Lilly, Kat, Vera, and Stillman, Lilly receiving a job offer from the FBI, and Scotty's quest for justice for his robbed and raped mother ultimately leading to his becoming accessory to the murder of the perpetrator, none of which were resolved due to the show being canceled after that season.
  • Abortion Fallout Drama: One sixth season episode involves a character who suffers through a botched abortion (the episode was again set in the 1960s-in both cases the botched abortions highlighted the trouble criminalizing abortion could cause, rather than serving to punish the characters).
  • Accidental Murder:
    • A number of cases, but, for one, the killer in "Stealing Home" swings his bat in a fit of rage and accidentally hits the victim.
    • Ditto for the killer in "The Key".
  • Accomplice by Inaction: A number of characters are arrested because they witness the murder and do nothing to stop it, such as in "The Red and The Blue", "Stand Up and Holler", "One Fall", "Jackals", and "Schadenfreude".
  • Actor Allusion: The army surplus store owner whom George Marks gets most of his stuff from is wearing a USS Enterprise cap, a reference to John Billingsley's previous role in Star Trek: Enterprise.
  • Acquitted Too Late:
    • In "Death Penalty: Final Appeal", the murderer is caught one day after the innocent man is executed.
    • Narrowly averted in "Thrill Kill", where one of the people wrongfully convicted ultimately has to hang himself in prison to get the police to reopen the case.
    • Happens in "The River". The man arrested for the murder is acquitted more than twenty years later... unfortunately, he had died in prison two months after being arrested.
    • The victim in "Flashover" has been arrested for starting a fire in his house and murdering his kids. The detectives reopen his case and acquit him... except he's been murdered in prison already.
  • Adaptational Heroism: While Heroism might be overstating things a bit, the victim turned Serial Killer Martha in "Lonely Hearts" is based on the very real Martha Beck. Whilst the things this Martha does are cold and savage, she does actually feel bad about her actions and even tries to make up for them. Unfortunately, this gets her killed. The real Martha on the other hand had absolutely no remorse for her actions which were arguably worse since she drowned one of her victim's two-year-old daughter. With that in mind, this Martha comes away looking relatively innocent.
  • Adults Are Useless: As seen in the two-parter "The Thin Blue Line/Into The Blue", as well as stupid, misogynistic and corrupt. The victim, the lone female cadet at a military school, is continuously harassed by her fellow cadets, the instructors and even a parent of a boy who was rejected by the school. The latter example is the most shameful; while the students and teachers have a right to be there and would (and do) protect their own by looking the other way, the father is a visitor who would come by daily in his drunken travels just to pointlessly bitch at her to her face during the flag ceremony practice and to personally blame her for his son not getting in. Whereas she isn't able to speak up for herself or even react to his acrimonious behavior, school officials could have easily kicked the asshole out and have him banned from coming onto the premises.
  • Age-Appropriate Angst: Highlighted when they confront the killer in "Honor". The man claims that he understands his victim's actions (he was a Vietnam POW who took early release and let the killer's father behind to die) but the detectives point out that that is the perspective of a mature adult, which he very much wasn't at the time of the murder.
  • Age Cut: The viewer is frequently treated to flashes between the younger and older versions of the characters. Frequently happens mid-sentence, in fact.
  • All Bikers Are Hells Angels: In "Jackals", the cold case team investigates the 30-year old murder of an honor student who fell in with a notorious biker gang called the Jackals.
  • All Girls Want Bad Boys: Deconstructed in "Running Around". Anna thinks the leather-clad, Tall, Dark, and Handsome Vince is her Jerk with a Heart of Gold Prince Charming. He's actually exactly as dangerous as he looks, being a date-rapist.
  • All Just a Dream: "Into the Blue"; borderline Dying Dream.
  • Alpha Bitch: "Stand Up and Holler", "Boy Crazy", "The Sleepover", "That Woman". This show usually has the Alpha Bitch be a nicer person in the present, or at least have her recognize how bitchy she was.
  • Aluminum Christmas Trees: "Pin Up Girl" has a group singing "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)" in a bar. If you don't know that the They Might Be Giants version is a cover, this would give you pause.
  • Always Murder: Sort of necessary, given the format, since murder is one of the few crimes with no Statute of Limitations. However, there have been a few aversions:
    • "Fireflies". The victim never actually dies. She is just kidnapped and due to the bullet the kidnapper shoots into her head, forgets who she is. She is put into the adoption system as a runaway and eventually is reunited with her real parents (and gets her memory back) thirty years later.
    • "Ghost of My Child". Much like the above example, the victim is kidnapped and presumed dead. He is reunited with his mother in the end.
    • In “The River” and "The Good Death", it is the result of a Mercy Kill rather than a cold-blooded murder.
    • "Fly Away", "Best Friends", and "Baby Blues" are supposed to be double suicides but they go awry and only one person dies.
    • In "Two Weddings", the victim jumps to his death the night before his wedding after hearing that his first wife, whom he was still in love with, dies after being in a coma for 8 years.
  • Amoral Attorney:
    • ADA Danner in "Death Penalty: Final Appeal", who knowingly sends an innocent man to the lethal injection to pretty up his numbers. In the closing montage, he gets disbarred.
    • ADA Thomas in "Sabotage" allows information that reveals the bomber maimed an innocent man instead of his intended target to be released to the public so she can finish her report faster. This leads to the bomber almost killing his target's wife and child.
  • Answer Cut: Customarily subverted; often, someone involved in a case will allude to information, just before a flashback containing it.
  • Arc Words:
    • "The woods" in the George Marks two-parter.
    • "Nobody cares" in the Paul Shepard two-parter.
    • "The Republican Hotel" in "Wings".
    • "Together we stand" in "Glory Days".
  • Armored Closet Gay:
    • The killer in "The Brush Man" kills the victim when the latter confronts him about beating his son when the boy sees him getting his knob slobbed by another guy at the park. Also the motive for the killer of "It’s Raining Men": Paul (who is either gay or bisexual) kills his brother Jeff because he fears the latter is going to out him to their homophobic father, who’d already disowned Jeff for being gay.
    • One of the Heart's Wait members in "That Woman".
  • Armor-Piercing Question: How Lilly defeats George Marks in "The Woods". After forcing her to relive one of her worst memories (her mother sent her out to get alcohol which resulted in Lilly getting attacked and beaten by a mugger) she finally realizes why George is so interested (as well as the double meaning of his taunts about how she was "betrayed by those you thought you loved most").
    "Who sold you out, George?"
  • Artistic License – Space: Not only is the moon in the wrong phase on the date in "One Small Step", the moon in that phase could not be in the position it is in the sky during the events of that episode.
  • Asshole Victim:
    • "Greed", "The Woods", "The Plan", "Blackout", "Justice", just to name a few.
    • The Jerk Jock rapists in "Rampage". Their killers would have been sympathetic... if they'd just stopped with the jocks.
    • While the main victim in "A Perfect Day" is a sympathetic little girl, her killer, her father, is murdered himself a few years later. No one sheds any tears.
      • A similar situation with the sex offenders murdered by the victim's father in "Offender".
    • No one, In-Universe or out, really get upset when Moe Kitchener takes a bullet to the brain.
    • Subverted with Jay Dratton in "The Good Death". While he initially comes off as an angry jerkass that absolutely no one was upset over the death of, he's shown to have been a good man at one point before being consumed by work and anger, and returned to being that as he neared closer and closer to death's door. It's ultimately why his ex-wife agreed to give him a Mercy Kill rather than let him suffer, while she, their son, and the woman who gave him the morphine after he apologized for his treatment of her and her terminally ill daughter, had to pretend he was one when confronted by the cops.
  • The Atoner:
    • Many of the more sympathetic killers try to turn into this, living exemplary lives to make up for what they did, or living crappy lives as a means of punishing themselves.
    • The victim in "The Brush Man", who had accidentally killed a Domestic Abuser in a bar fight years before, and after serving his manslaughter sentence begins giving money to the dead man's widow (who is nevertheless relieved to be rid of him).
    • The victim in "Blood On The Tracks" is determined to go to the police and confess to a crime he and his friends had been involved in that resulted in another friend's death. Unfortunately, he fails to anticipate the rest of them making sure he keeps his mouth shut.
  • Awesome Mc Coolname: Two episodes feature (as victims) singers named Truck Sugar and Bingo Zohar. Judging by the fact that these names appear on their case evidence boxes, they apparently aren't stage names.
  • Awful Wedded Life: Most of the married couples that become suspects in the show, whether they are still together or divorced by the time of the reinvestigation, are shown to have been miserable together, whether it’s because of Incompatible Orientation, Domestic Abuse, one or both partners having substance abuse or other problems that just cannot be solved. By contrast, many of the couples who don’t get married, like they were having an affair or just not ready, are shown to be very happy and in love.
  • Awkward First Sleepover: One case revolves around a first sleepover gone wrong - the newcomer is only invited so that the other girls can humiliate her, and when she won't play along, one of the other girls accidentally kills her in a blind rage, afraid that she herself would become the new designated loser in the group.
  • Ax-Crazy:
  • The mastermind in "That Woman". While the killing itself is planned with the others, it still has that crime of passion element with each of them showing genuine guilt for their actions. The leader of the group, however, not only plans the whole thing, the expression never leaves her face. Add to this that she seems to be a Cloud Cuckoolander who can’t tell reality from fiction.
  • Babies Ever After: In the final minutes of the series finale, Lilly discovers she's an aunt when she finds her missing sister—and her infant daughter.
  • Bad Samaritan: The killer in "Offender", who lures the victim into his garage under the pretense of helping him patch up his knee (he'd fallen and cut it) and offering him a soda.
  • The Bad Guy Wins: A mild version in "Red Glare", as the killer essentially accomplishes everything he wants and gets away with his crime for fifty years, and although he's caught in the end it's strongly implied that he's too old to be given a severe punishment for his actions.
    • George Marks in "Mind Hunters", though he's brought down in "The Woods".
  • Bait-and-Switch:
    • In "Saving Patrick Bubley", Miguel Maldonado and Patrick's older brother, Vaughn, fight over Patrick's scooter. Miguel lets Vaughn think he's won the tussle, then catches him off guard and shoots him to death.
    Miguel: You win, dawg...HERE'S YOUR PRIZE!
    • Season six is full of these plotlines where an episode initially sets up one person (usually a more viable and unlikable character) to be the killer, only for the killer to be someone unexpected or even close to the victim:
      • "Glory Days": Instead of the asshole coach being the killer of the football star, it's the mentor to keep him quiet from discussing his illegal misdeeds.
      • "Breaking News": Instead of it being the jealous and ambitious co-anchor who kills the reporter, it is her mentor who kills her due to her investigating a local plant and the connection to it making citizens ill.
      • "The Dealer": Instead of any of the female car dealership's many sexist and racist coworkers being her killer, it is another coworker who isn't either of those but still kills her in the heat of the moment.
      • "Mind Games": While it looks like the therapist's client, a mentally ill young man with an imaginary friend, has a breakdown and kills her, it is a coworker who is secretly mentally ill himself.
  • Baseball Episode: Cold Case has three baseball episodes:
    • "A Time to Hate" about a gay college baseball player beaten to death in 1964.
    • "Colors", where the team re-opens the 1945 case of an African-American baseball player who was beaten to death with his own bat.
    • "Stealing Home", where the team looks into the 1999 murder of a former Cuban baseball star who escapes to the U.S. to provide for his family after the Cuban government fired him for talking to a U.S. sports agent. It also features the annual softball game against the fire department.
  • Batter Up!: "A Time to Hate", "Colors" and "Stealing Home". All three are Baseball Episodes.
  • Beauty Equals Goodness: Done in a weird way in "It's Raining Men"; the studly, Really Gets Around-type gay man who is revealed to have been giving other men AIDs For the Evulz has aged much worse than the straight-laced key witness who is the victim's totally-devoted partner... but he's also become a much better person with age.
  • Be Careful What You Wish For:
    • The killer in "Pin-Up Girl" finally gets to be in front of the camera.
    • Averted in "Bad Reputation". The son of the victim wants to be just like his father. To nip that in the bud his father pretends to be a jerk.
    • Crumbs in "Colors" would have given anything for one good swing and in a fit of rage, he takes it... killing his friend in the process.
  • Been There, Shaped History: A few minor examples with the side characters.
    • The victim in "Colors" is almost the first man to break the race barrier in baseball, but then he is killed and the honor goes, as per history, to Jackie Robinson (who appears as a minor character in the episode).
    • Likewise, the victim in "Devil Music" is in the process of recording one of the first demos for American Bandstand and would have been one of the first rock and roll artists to appear on television if he hadn't been killed.
    • The (fictional) 1995 mall shooting in "Rampage" is listed alongside Columbine by Stillman as an example of famous acts of violence that lead to the push for modern gun control laws.
    • There have also been a couple fictional politicians and a fictional first woman to break the sound barrier (it was actually Jacqueline Cochran).
    • There were only two deaths at the famous 1969 Woodstock music festival: a drug overdose and an accident involving a tractor. The episode "Free Love" adds an In-Universe third one: the Victim of the Week, who is shot to death.
  • Benevolent Boss: Monty in "Pin-Up Girl". Not only is he willing to accept Rita's quitting from modelling to go into photo journalism after seeing her shots, but he is also willing to publish her shots himself due to her being, as he tells the detectives in the present day, "even more talented behind the camera than in front of it." As if to confirm his goodness, he's the one who gets to see Rita's ghost in the ending montage while developing her old photos.
  • Berserk Button:
    • ALL of the detectives react very badly while interrogating George Marks, when rather than caving in and confessing, he instead taunts them about traumatic events in their lives—Scotty's schizophrenic girlfriend and her suicide, Vera mishandling a rape case (to the point that Vera needs to be restrained from attacking him), the death of Jeffries' wife (George implies he was the one who killed her, which, though it's not literally true, digs into the wound from his being unable to save her; Jeffries stays calm in the interview but loses it later), Stillman's failed marriage and Lilly's childhood mugging.
    • Scotty Valens: Suspended in an episode after beating the crap out of an inmate that said suicide is cowardly and a result of the loved ones failing to do their work. His childhood love had recently committed suicide.
    • Vera:
      • Used to react very badly to comments about his failed marriage.
      • Is so obsessed with solving the case of a Serial Rapist who had murdered his latest victim that he relentlessly browbeats two suspects (despite the fact that one of them cooperated fully) to the point where the DA has to explicitly tell him to stay away from each man. Five years later not only does the warning still stand, both men are still afraid of him.
      • He really seems to hate rapists in general, possibly due to the effect the above case had on him.
    • Jeffries:
      • Beats the crap out the crooked DA whose obstruction results in an innocent man getting executed (and violently forces the real killer against the wall).
      • It's not wise, if you're a minority suspect, to pull the "I was only arrested because all police are racist" card in front of Jeffries.
      • Reckless drivers, due to his wife’s death in a hit and run accident, as seen in "Bad Night". He does eventually realize he was being too hard on the victim of that case because of it.
    • Stillman: Just about anything having to do with the armed forces—disrespect, ill-treatment—is this, having been in the service himself. His contempt for a man who falsely claims to have been a POW (like the victim) is greater than that for the killer himself.
    • Lilly: It's bad mothers, to the point where she acts extremely cold to two women who are genuinely trying to improve as parents. It's Personal for her.
    • Many of the victims get killed because they trip on the killer's button. For example, the victim in Beautiful Little Fool is killed because she called the killer "lowly".
  • Betty and Veronica: "Soul" had Chandra the church girl and Beatrice, a girl with a reputation who is secretary to a record producer. It turns out to be a Betty and Veronica Switch—the victim ends up having a son with the latter and gets killed by the former because she's a Yandere.
  • Big Brother Bully: There are two in "One Small Step". Granted, one is a lot more Ax-Crazy than the other, an ordinary mean older sister.
  • Big Damn Reunion: Brenda the kidnapping victim and her fiancé David in " The Road", she races up, and hugs him ad he lifts her off her feet and in a circle as both of them beam with happiness.
  • Big Jerk on Campus: “Almost Paradise”, “Knuckle Up”, “Boy Crazy”, “Stand Up And Holler”, and “Justice”. Most of the Big Jerks On Campus are shown to have fallen far from their pedestals by comparing them in the flashbacks to them at the time of the reinvestigation. They are unattractive and unsuccessful in life, yet still clinging to their old Jerkass ways.
  • Bigot with a Badge: The episode "Forever Blue" deals with the case of a gay cop named Sean Cooper who was murdered in 1968. The killer is revealed to be Cooper's homophobic police sergeant Tom McCree and flashbacks show Sean getting a lot of flack from his fellow officers for his sexuality.
  • Birth/Death Juxtaposition: In "Family", a Prom Baby is born shortly before her father is murdered by the doer, when he reneges on a deal to have the doer adopt the baby, after deciding to raise her himself.
  • Bitch in Sheep's Clothing: Anybody from the killer to the victim to any suspect in between.
    • The killer in "Gleen". Being a retired firefighter and caring father makes for fine sheep's clothing. But underneath, he's a controlling, overbearing monster who scared off his last two wives and kills his third wife, the victim, with a bomb he plants.
    • In Episode 9 of Season 1, we have Sherry Fox. Outside: A beautiful, caring young woman who loves her boyfriend. Inside:Con-Artist, Gold-digger, Murderer.
    • In "Justice", we have the victim Mike Delaney, a handsome college student with good grades, a 'Casanova', made valedictorian at graduation, and a charitable member of the Meals on Wheels program. But all that goes out the window once you learn he was a serial rapist in life.
    • Almost literally with the killer in "Churchgoing People". All flashbacks of her show her as a prim, modestly dressed and coifed woman. Until her son finally confesses that she was actually a violent and abusive drunk who regularly beat his father and finally killed him in a rage upon learning of his infidelity.
    • "Slipping" gives us the victim's husband, her own killer. He throws off the audience by claiming he wrote his poem as a dedication to his wife. But once you learn he actually stole that poem from her before killing her, it becomes clear he only married her to be close to the competition.
    • The professor in "Hubris". When we meet him, he's a broken man whose marriage and career are ruined by the murder suspicions and the fact that not only had he had an affair with the victim, she wasn't his first dalliance. Despite his cheating, it's easy to have a little sympathy for him given that he regrets his behavior and just wants to clear his name and get his life back. Until the end of the episode where we learn that he IS the killer and that every single thing that happened to him is fully deserved and that he's actually an arrogant bastard who isn't the least bit sorry for what he did. Indeed, he felt completely entitled to seduce his female students and to kill the one girl who dared break up with him rather than him be the one to dump her, to the point where he outright states, "It's her fault. She made me fall in love with her."
    • In "Who's your Daddy", Brad Atwater is this to an extent. Although the foreman is earlier described as an unfair boss to his employees, he's initially introduced as a friendly sort who has a family of four, and an ailing wife he cares about. But later, it's revealed that not only is he unfaithful to said-wife, he makes the wives of his Asian employees service him sexually by licking his boots. And later, when the wife offers some evidence, Atwater denounces her as crazy and even claims her illness is probably 'made up'.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Every episode. The flashbacks spend a lot of time developing the victim's character, allowing the audience to get to know him or her, often making them so nice that it's easy to forget that he/she is already dead. Even their killer finally being arrested can't take away the sting of this person being gone forever—especially since the killer themselves is often depicted as being genuinely horrified by their actions. And in the case of the occasional Asshole Victim, it bites that someone's being arrested for killing someone who probably got what he or she deserved.
    • "The Runaway Bunny" has one of these. The doer is caught and the victim gets justice. Great! Unfortunately, the doer is just a henchman, and they don't have enough evidence to charge the real villain.
    • "Chinatown". Literally everything could have been prevented had one specific cop just arrested the local Chinese mob leader, but he doesn't because he figures someone else just as bad will replace him. Even all three villains - the cop, the mob boss, and the killer - getting theirs at the end doesn't seem to balance out the fact that two innocent lives were lost and several more ruined all due to the cynicism of one man.
  • Black Sheep: Christina Rush. Though in a way every Rush save Lilly is a Black Sheep, which would then make her a White Sheep.
  • Black Widow: The killer in "Gleen" is a Black Widower, as is the accomplice in "Start-up", which is how he knows what poison to give to the killer to commit the dirty deed.
  • The Blue Beard: "Lonely Hearts" and to a lesser extent "Gleen". The husband in the former episode is initially just a con artist until his girlfriend convinces him to marry several women just so they can kill them and get the insurance money and in the end, has five dead wives. The husband in the latter episode is more of a subversion; he kills the victim who is the wife he has a daughter with, but doesn't get the chance to kill the other women he was to marry because they either leave him after he gets too possessive or in the case of his current fiancee, he is arrested the weekend they are to get married.
  • Bookends: "It Takes A Village" starts with the victim bidding farewell to his grandmother as she's sitting on the porch (this was the last time she saw him alive). It ends with her in the same place, listening to his iPod, looking up to see his spirit standing there before he smiles and fades away as he turns to head down the steps just as he did in the beginning.
  • Bottle Episode:
    • The flashbacks in "Blood on the Tracks" are all in the same house, over a weekend.
    • In "Blackout", the flashbacks are in the same house over a matter of hours.
    • "Almost Paradise" depicts the victim's prom night.
    • "One Night"—all of the present day scenes take place over... one night, as do most of the flashbacks.
    • "Two Weddings" does the same thing, with both the flashbacks and the present day investigation taking place over one day in their respective time periods.
  • Bring My Brown Pants: Mike Delaney ("Justice") actually pisses himself when his rape victims confront him and hold him at gunpoint.
  • Breaking Speech:
    • John Smith tries this on Lilly in "The Road". Then he takes it too far and Lilly's Kensington background proves vital to the case.
    • George Marks uses it on everyone in both the episodes he's in.
  • Broken Record: A literal version in "Static", wherein a gunshot causes a record player in immediate range to be covered in blood.
  • Bromantic Foil: The killer in "Iced" is pretty much the stereotypical lovable loser best friend of the main character. He becomes resentful that his friend has distanced himself from him so he can concentrate on being a good hockey player, so he gets back at him by raping and impregnating his girlfriend.
  • Brother–Sister Incest: The baddie in "Late Returns" turns out to be the older sister of a prominent Congressman, who had molested him as a child. In the present she's his campaign manager, and still retains a disturbing obsession with and degree of control over him.
  • Buried Alive: Happens to the Victim of the Week in "One Night". The detectives not only have to solve his murder, but locate another boy who has suffered the same fate.
  • Bury Your Gays:
    • In the episode "Forever Blue", the cop who calls him and his partner 'the lucky ones', tells his father that he is a man, and all but admits that he's in love with said partner is the one who's killed. Meanwhile, his partner, who in present day still insists until near the end of the episode that he isn't gay (and to add insult to death, claims his partner also wasn't 'like that') is the one who lives. He lived because he broke things off the night they were supposed to go patrolling together.
    • The season one episode, "A Time to Hate", features the fatal beating of a college baseball star outside a underground club after a raid. And then there's the heartbreaking ending scene...
    • "Best Friends" involves a lesbian couple in the 1930s, one white, one black. The black woman drowned, with it turning out both had been attacked and run off the road by Klansmen outraged at their relationship.
    • "Boy Crazy" has a mental patient who dies mysteriously in the 60's. It turns out they were there due to gender non-conformity (either being a transgender boy or tomboyish girl, it's never made clear), then subjected to very excessive ECT treatment and rendered catatonic for defiance. They were then euthanized by another patient, in a blatant Shout-Out to One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.
    • In "Daniela" the titular character, a young trans woman, kills herself when her boyfriend's father makes him break up with her.
  • But Not Too Black:
    • The victim in "The Letter" was bi-racial. Her white boyfriend wanted her to leave the racist area they lived in and move to NYC with him, telling her she looked "white enough" to pass and that "nobody'll ever know."
    • The victim in "Libertyville" is half black and half white but looks completely white. It is central to the plot, as he'd passed as white and is murdered for doing so.
  • Bystander Syndrome: Occasionally, a murder will happen because someone who isn't involved in the crime let it happen either due to ignorance or apathy. A disturbing example comes from "Triple Threat" where a witness takes the purse off of a young woman found in a subway. Even though in the present day he defends himself to the detectives by saying she was already dying by the time he got there and became a nurse to atone for what happened, it still doesn't excuse the fact that he stole from someone who was dying instead of trying to call for help, and keeps the purse for 20 years instead of turning it in.
  • By-the-Book Cop: Stillman to a T. He's the only one of the main characters who never flirts with dirtiness at any point in the show.
  • Call-Back:
    • In the episode "Bad Night," Jeffries tells a suspect about how he'll kill the hit and run truck driver that killed his wife if he ever gets the chance. The suspect counters that he wouldn't, because he'd realize in the end that it was an accident. A season later Jeffries finds out the identity of his wife's killer, goes to confront him... but doesn't kill him, because he realizes it won't bring his wife back.
    • The Season 2 premiere, "The Badlands", has the detectives re-investigating the triple murder Lilly was heading over to investigate at the beginning of the pilot episode.
  • Cannot Keep a Secret: Tina Bream tells her sister and drug addict brother-in-law about her husband’s bearer-bonds. She later tells him about the police sting operation. Both of these cause her son’s kidnapping and prevent them from retrieving him.
  • Cannot Tell a Lie: The only witness in "Saving Sammy" is a boy with High-Functioning Autism. He regresses for several years, making it hard for him to even speak, much less tell the truth.
  • Category Traitor: "Discretion" has a Hispanic detective and prosecutor (the latter is the episode's main victim) working a Missing White Woman Syndrome case being seen as this by their community, since the prime suspect was Hispanic as well.
  • Card-Carrying Villain: Some episodes feature characters who are Obviously Evil (and played by big name actors) as a way to mislead the viewers into believing they are the killers.
  • Casualty in the Ring: The victim in "Yo, Adrian" is Jerry Stone, an underground boxer who died during a boxing match. On his death bed, the referee confesses that he was bribed to let the fight continue until it became fatal for Jerry.
  • Celebrity Paradox:
  • Central Theme: Some episodes have their own.
  • Character Name Alias: In "One Small Step", a witness who hands in a piece of evidence related to a murder that took place on the day of the first moon landing uses the alias 'Michael Collins', the name of the third astronaut on the Apollo 11 mission.
  • The Charmer: Dex Collins, the victim in "Street Money" has an uncanny ability to turn enemies to allies. This gets him killed by an irate shopkeeper when he finds out Dex cut a deal with a corrupt city councilman.
  • Chekhov's Gun: At some point in the many flashbacks, sometimes even from the very first one, something is said or done that proves relevant not only to the victim's murder, but to the identity of the killer.
    • Sometimes in the present-day scenes as well— in "Sandhogs", a unique cigarette lighter owned by one of the suspects turns out to have been a gift given to the victim, thus revealing him to be the murderer.
    • "Wilkommen" deals with a murder that takes place during a play, thus limiting the suspects to the cast and crew. Early on, the music director briefly mentions that the equipment in his booth lets him hear everything in the theater easily, a point that's dropped fairly quickly. At the end of the episode, the suspects have been narrowed down to two, both of whom planned to scare the victim the night of the show, and each flips on the other, leaving the cops with no case. Stillman seems like he's about to reluctantly let the case die for lack of evidence, before Lilly remembers that if the music director had been in the booth at the time, he'd have heard the plan, too. Yup, he did it.
  • Chekhov's Gunman:
    • There are a few episodes where the killer turns out to be none of the episode's pool of suspects, such as the brother/lawyer in "Justice", the informant in "8:30AM" and the adult neighbour in "Offender".
    • A non-killer example: Linda Boyka, the community centre receptionist from "Cargo", is the head of the human trafficking ring.
  • Chekhov's Skill: Vera's rudimentary knowledge of sign language in "Andy in C Minor" (which he picked up on advice of Dean Harden) proves useful when he comprehends Andy's parents' conversation, leading them to his killer.
  • Childhood Friend Romance:
    • Scotty has known his ill-fated fiancee since they were kids.
    • Lilly and her Old Flame Ray were also revealed to be Childhood Friends before running (or rather biking) away together when she was 19.
  • Children Are Innocent: The victim in "Glued" is a little boy that doesn't understand the pressures of being raised by a single mother or the racist tension in his neighborhood. He is killed by someone who claims something like "he betrayed his race", again something he didn't understand.
  • Chocolate Baby: Played with in "Libertyville"; the victim was afraid of this because he was hiding his race, but his daughter was born with no signs of her black ancestry.
  • Chronic Hero Syndrome: The victim in "The Brush Man" spent hard time for killing a man who was beating his wife, and later tracks down the wife to give her money on a regular basis as an apology for doing so. He gets killed when, having started a new life as a successful traveling salesman, he intervenes in another domestic abuse scenario involving one of his customers' kids.
  • Circus Episode: In "Metamorphosis," the team investigates the death of a teenage circus aerialist.
  • Clear My Name: Why the cases in "Hubris", "It's Raining Men", "Frank's Best", "Death Penalty: Final Appeal", "Thrill Kill", "Iced", "Two Weddings", "Flashover" and "Bad Night" are opened.
  • Color Motif: The flashback scenes in "Spiders" are terribly drab but the color red is quite vivid.
  • Color Wash:
    • Almost every episode. It is used to distinguish the scenes in the past from those in the present. For instance, scenes taking place in the seventies will have vivid warm colors, scenes taking place in the early nineties are black, white, and grey, while the present-day scenes will have a 'normal'/slightly blue-tinged colour scheme.
    • Taken a step further in a flashback in the episode "Volunteers", set in 1969. A character mentions she was "tripping", and the resulting flashback has a rather odd and slanted look.
  • Conspiracy Theorist:
    • One of the suspects in "One Small Step" believes that the moon landings were faked. The murder they are investigating occurred on the day of the first moon landing, and the events of that day may have fueled his later delusion.
    • A witness in "Glued" believes the murder was the first step in an extremely elaborate real estate scam. He's right about who did it, but the motive was rather more mundane.
  • Contrived Coincidence: Quite a few murders are the end result of such coincidences. The Everybody Did It episode "That Woman" deserves special mention, as it features the victim discovering the deepest, darkest secrets of all her friends, within the space of a few days, by complete accident.
  • Cool Old Lady: Audrey Abruzzi, the last surviving witness in "Torn", is very elderly, very quirky, and very helpful to the case.
  • The Coroner: Frannie Ching.
  • Corrupt Corporate Executive: Such a person is an accomplice in "Breaking News". To his credit, he probably didn't intend anyone to actually die, but that still doesn't save him from the slammer.
  • Corrupt Politician:
    • Councilman Avery in "The Promise" is secretly a rapist.
    • Councilman Boone in "Street Money". The detectives are extremely disappointed that he turns out to be innocent.
  • Crazy Homeless Person: The killer in "A Dollar, A Dream". Although initially seen as a friend of the victim who was showing her and her daughters "the ropes" of surviving in the streets, his delusions and lack of stability become crystal clear as the detectives are interviewing him in the present day, and how he killed the victim due to believing her winning ticket was worth more money than she said it was.
  • Crazy-Prepared: The victim in "Witness Protection" videotapes his deposition so that even if he is killed the crime boss will go to jail.
  • Creepy Gym Coach: The series often portrays its gym teachers as very perverted:
    • "The Plan": The victim - a swim coach at a military academy - is revealed to have sexually abused his students.
    • "Family": The coach had raped one of his students in the locker room and seemed to be about to molest her daughter (whom he may have actually thought was his own daughter from the rape, but she isn't) when he gets killed.
    • Played with in "Stand Up and Holler". Although the coach in this case isn't explicitly abusive, he is a slimy, pathetic loser who is far too invested in his students' lives and wants to be viewed as one of them, so he covers up the rapes perpetuated by the football players.
  • Creepy Monotone: Deputy Commissioner Doherty talks like this.
  • Crouching Moron, Hidden Badass: In "Shore Leave". One suspect, a former Marine, lies about his age to fight in The Korean War, but becomes the Butt-Monkey of his platoon and attracts the Drill Sergeant Nasty because of his ineptitude. He ends up saving the lives of his comrades by responding quickly to a P.L.A. ambush on the front lines and is awarded the Navy Cross, second only to the Congressional Medal of Honor. Years later, even with proof of his heroism, his old Sergeant still thinks he was only one step up from a total washout.
    • Curtis Bell, the ADA introduced in "Street Money". He appears completely disorganised, and acts like he doesn't know what day of the week it is, but is one of the shrewdest prosecutors around.
  • Crossover: When blood found at a scene in Philadelphia matchs NYPD Detective Stella Bonasera's, Scotty travels to CSI: NY to solve it, adding to the whole The 'Verse thing, with the CSI shows and Without a Trace.
  • Cruel and Unusual Death: Many victims.
    • Anyone who is drowned, particularly the victim in "The Plan" who is beaten by three of his own victims while in a swimming pool, then held underwater until he dies.
    • Carrie Swett, who is stoned for being promiscuous in a scene right out of Old Testament times.
    • Steve Jablonski, who is Buried Alive.
    • Carlos Espinosa, who has spray paint poured down his throat.
    • Fans generally agree, though, that John Smith's victims, who are starved to death, are the most bloodcurdling of all.
  • Cruel Mercy: One of the suspects in "Thick as Thieves" plans on doing this to the Asshole Victim. Instead of killing her in a fit of rage, he wants to get her sent to jail. Given that she spent all of her life running away from her trailer park past, getting exposed as a con artist would have been a Fate Worse than Death for her.
  • Cruel to Be Kind: Somewhat in "Strange Fruit". The victim's friend visits him in jail and acts cold-hearted and mean for finding out her husband raped their maid. She pays his bail, but not before snidely prompting them to go to Washington. ...Except, she does that so the victim won't stick around to be killed by the husband if the latter finds out about their secret friendship.
  • Daddy Didn't Show: Subverted in "Static". Apparently, Daddy took too long to show. His wife is pissed off, and shoots him when he tries to apologize.
  • Daddy Had a Good Reason for Abandoning You:
    • The episode "Family". The father is a senior in high school who is killed by his principal after he decides to not give his daughter to him because he wants to actually raise her.
    • The victim of "Cargo" is killed before he can buy his surrogate daughter's freedom, and since his killer lies to her about his motives, she spends all that time thinking he has simply abandoned her.
    • The victim in "Sandhogs" abruptly breaks up with his girlfriend, telling her that he's going to reconcile with his wife and that their racial difference (she was black, he was white, and Loving v. Virginia was still over 20 years from happening) means they are doomed anyway. He is actually trying to protect her from opponents of his who had threatened her. The woman never even gets a chance to tell him she's pregnant and spends decades thinking he'd ditched her.
  • Dangerous Deserter: How the killer in "Free Love" sees the victim.
  • Dark Secret: Often the motive for many of the crimes, but special mention goes to "That Woman", where the victim somehow manages to stumble onto the secrets of every single member of her chastity club. It's what gets her killed.
  • Deadpan Snarker:
    • Most of the main cast has their moments, but special mention goes to Detective Nick Vera.
      (from "The Promise") "He's cute. French maids do it for me too."
    • This often occurs whenever a suspect tries to direct the detectives' sympathies from the victims and onto themselves. Consider this exchange from "Hubris":
      Roy Minard: My unfortunate role was as the prime suspect.
      Lilly Rush: Who had the unfortunate role of the victim?
    • This one from "One Fall":
      Sil Tavern: In our business if you make it to fifty you're doing well.
      Lilly Rush: Mick didn't make it to thirty.
  • Dead Person Impersonation:
    • The dead woman from "Committed" is using the identity of a murder victim.
    • The killer from "Blood on the Tracks" takes the identity of one her victims. As it turns out, this is easy to do as they bear a strong resemblance to each other.
    • In "The Hen House", the murderer is a Nazi guard at Auschwitz who had stolen the name of a young man killed at the camp, both to escape and in an attempt to redeem himself. With the rest of the family also having died at the camp, he easily passes without much question, even going so far as to join the man's living family members in the US (who didn't have a way of knowing it was a impostor, having likely never met him) and lives among them for over sixty years. He is only caught thanks to an investigation into the murder he committed in the 40's, both to prevent from being exposed and being half-enraged/half-heartbroken that his victim (whom he'd fallen in love with) rejected him after finding out what he'd done.
  • Death by Falling Over: Multiple episodes feature the Victim of the Week dying after being shoved (down a flight of stairs, off a balcony, on to a curbstone, etc.) by the killer.
  • Deconstruction:
    • Many episodes serve as deconstructions of entire time periods, or people's attitudes toward "the good old days" in general.
    • "Running Around" features a deconstruction of the All Girls Want Bad Boys trope as a major plot element. Turns out the dreamy, leather-clad drug dealer with a seeming heart of gold really is just a knob.
  • Defeat Means Friendship: The victim from "Read Between The Lines" beats a guy in a freestyle rap battle and he becomes her mentor.
  • Defiled Forever: How the sisters in St. Mary (an American Magdalene laundry) want the girls to think of themselves in "The Goodbye Room". The victim actually defies this:
    Hilary West: How could I be bad and make an angel like her? (looks adoringly at her baby).
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: The whole show runs on it. Expect at least five episodes a season to rub in the audiences' face just how cruel, repressive, and dangerous the past was for anyone who was "different" or who stepped out of the incredibly rigid lines of "polite" society. Most of the time, the era is the true monster of the case, and not the murderer.
    • Even more recent cases get this; in "Fly Away" a landlady bluntly states that she wouldn't allow black people to rent in her building—in 2001, when such conduct had long been deemed illegal.
    • "The Good Bye Room" features a home for teenage mothers. As one detective says, "Glad I was an unwed mother in the '90s, not the '60s."
  • Department of Child Disservices: The episodes "Fly Away", "The Woods", and "Ghost of My Child" have the child service workers being a pedophile, a burglar, and a child kidnapper, respectively.
  • Depraved Bisexual:
    • How many shows have one of these in the first episode? It is in the form of a jailed, somewhat effete pederast.
    • Seen in "Greed" where the manipulative stockbroker tells young men they can get ahead if they sleep with him, and sleeps with a mother and a son to get the mother to invest money.
  • Developing Doomed Characters: The Victim of the Week is fleshed out in numerous flashbacks that keep him/her onscreen throughout the entire episode. As such, it is often very easy to forget that these persons are already dead despite their death having been established within the first five minutes, making the final scenes that depict their murder and the person responsible quite gut-wrenching.
  • Diabolus ex Machina: Many of the murders are played this way. "Shuffle, Ball Change", "Triple Threat", "The Letter", and "Almost Paradise" are all rather cruel, but the most bloodcurdling one of all was probably "A Perfect Day".
  • Did I Mention It's Christmas?: "Frank's Best" is set right around Christmastime.
  • Didn't Think This Through: While the revelation of who the doer was in "Time to Crime" was heartbreaking, to say the least, that doesn't really change the fact that he was a complete and utter moron. Dude buys a gun that he intends to use to kill someone from the same person he intends to kill, then instead of, say, shooting him right there, he waits until the guy is in the middle of a crowded park, then fires randomly into said crowded park, and not only misses his target, but hits his own sister by accident.
    • Perhaps he knew that shooting the guy right then and there would immediately focus suspicion on him, whereas shooting at him via a drive-by might leave the case unsolved? (The guy was well known as a local criminal and there would have been no shortage of suspects). Maybe he had second thoughts about killing the guy and only the realization that he was going to continue to be a problem for him spurred the killing?
    • Most likely, as he himself said, he was just copying what he saw from a television show. While incredibly intelligent he was still just twelve years old the thought of shooting the guy right then and there probably never entered his mind. Also he was looking for an alibi. He chose that night because both his parents were out but knew he was home.
  • Died in Your Arms Tonight: In "8:03 AM", Miller reopens the cold case of Skill Jones; a young drug dealer who died in her arms when she was working undercover for narcotics.
  • Dies Wide Open: How many bodies are found.
  • Dirty Cop: Plenty, including...
    • The killer in "A Perfect Day", who uses his police connections to cover up his own Domestic Abuse.
    • The killer in "Bad Reputation", who, cleaned out by his ex-wife in their divorce, begins using his informants to commit crimes for him.
    • The finale reveals Deputy Commissioner Doherty is actually crooked, rather than just sleazy, albeit for idealistic reasons, fudging his druggie son's criminal record to omit manslaughter to enable him to rebuild his life.
    • The protagonists, bar Stillman, flirt with this in "Justice" by letting a man who killed a Karma Houdini serial rapist for assaulting his sister walk.
    • "Forever Blue" features two examples:
      • The victim's partner turns out to be this, albeit out of desperation.
      • Lt. McCree, who took kickbacks from Philly's heroin kingpin at the time and cold-bloodedly shot a fellow officer for being gay.
    • The victim in "The Runaway Bunny" is a former Philadelphia cop who was fired from the force for being on the take. He becomes a very disreputable private investigator but eventually performs a Heel–Face Turn that results in his death when he realizes what his Black Widow client is up to.
  • Dirty Coward:
    • When you sum up everything she did, the killer in "Blood on the Tracks" is this - she even admits to it when confronted by Lilly.
    • The victim in "Justice" is a serial date rapist who exploits the lax laws regarding date rape to repeatedly perpetuate the crimes, pees himself when several of his former victims confront him at gunpoint, and then acts unapologetic and unrepentant about his actions once they leave. The detectives become so repulsed by what they learn of him that they actually tell the killer what to say in court to defend himself.
    • The spoiled rich kid and one of the killers in "8:03 AM". While the other killer could be seen as somewhat sympathetic, this kid is nothing more than a Smug Snake who feels that, because his father is rich, he can get away with anything. Yet, he starts bawling the moment he finds out that that isn’t the case.
  • Disabled Love Interest: Wheelchair-bound paraplegic Vicki in "Bad Night", who has no less than three suitors throughout the episode, including the victim and the killer.
  • Disposable Sex Worker:
    • Straight example in "Hubris" - the old case is reopened because a prostitute in the present day is murdered in the same way as the original victim... yet this new victim is almost not investigated at all, and she does not appear in "ghost form" when her killer is caught at the end, while the older victim does.
    • The case in "The Letter" goes cold in the first place because the victim was mistaken as a prostitute, so the cops didn't put any effort in searching for the killer.
  • Disproportionate Retribution:
  • "Thrill Kill". The guy kills his son and his friends because of a harmless prank they pulled on him.
  • None of these hold a candle to the guy from "Disco Inferno", who murders 23 people over an insult to his dancing skills and displays not one iota of remorse—and said insult was only given after he had just attacked the victim in the hopes that he could break the guy's legs or damage them enough so he couldn't win the dance contest. The victim is understandably ticked off at having been assaulted.
  • "Fireflies". A white girl defends her black friend from a racist boy. Said boy is humiliated and breaks into her house and attempts to kill her.
    • It wasn't just that. The boy is being beaten daily by his father because of a situation that starts when the white girl befriends the black girl. He shoots at them to scare both into breaking their friendship, but thought he had accidentally murdered one... and then went to kill the other so she couldn't tell anyone. Luckily, the girl survived.
  • The serial killer from "The Last Drive-In"/"Bullet" targets the people he blames for his father's suicide, and later for his own business failing. Most of them are nothing more than innocent bearers of bad news.
  • The killer in "Sabotage" is a serial bomber targeting people who have wronged him. The crimes that draw his ire include: being a medical assistant at the hospital that didn't treat his daughter due to his lack of insurance, not respecting his decision not to sell his father's home, and refusing to refund a broken radio. Most of his victims are just enforcing policies they have no control over. As for the one he arguably has the most right to be angry at—his brother, who abandons him during his daughter's illness and allows their father's home to be demolished—he still manages to go above and beyond by targeting the man's wife and young daughter.
  • Domestic Abuse: Several but most notably in "A Perfect Day", "Churchgoing People" and "The Brush Man".
  • Double Standard: Abuse, Female on Male: Played with for the first suspect in "The Red and the Blue": a woman who shoots her husband after she catches him cheating. She is sent to jail and is presented as Ax-Crazy. Throughout her interrogation, not only does she hint that she was cheating on him as well (in addition to admitting she was his former mistress), but she sends the cops after him. However at the end of the episode, the two reconcile and embrace each other.
  • Downer Ending: While most episodes are bittersweet at best, a few episodes end this way due to the doer getting off or even if the victim had lived, they still would be implied to have had led an unhappy life:
    • "Mind Hunters" ends with George Marks walking out of police headquarters a free man due to lack of evidence and the follow up episode, "The Woods" reveals that he is able to successfully kill the lone woman who had escaped him in 1997.
    • "The Runaway Bunny" has the Evil Stepmother of the eponymous Bunny not be charged in the long-unsolved murder of her father for similar reasons.
    • "Death Penalty: Final Appeal" has the wrong man executed for raping and killing a teenage girl in 1994 due to an overly ambitious prosecutor who fudges the case. The man's angry ghost appears at his funeral alongside Lilly and Jeffries.
    • The victim from "Honor", a former prisoner of war who served in Vietnam, faces a post-service life with a wife and son who abandon him for a Phony Veteran who pretends to be him, and his old friends and fellow soldiers turn on him due to blaming him for the death of his best friend in the POW camp.
    • The victim from "Spiders" comes from an abusive home, is unsuccessfully made an emancipated minor and ultimately held captive by a group of Neo-Nazis, then gets murdered by one after she escapes.
    • The victim's daughter in "Gleen" is left an emotional wreck due to her mother's brutal murder during her childhood and the heartbreak of learning that her father had killed her.
    • "Committed:" The Big Bad has been dead for decades, with nobody the wiser that he was a murderer for the entirety of his life, and so his tragic Guilt Ridden Accomplices whom he'd blackmailed into assisting him get the blame for the whole thing.
  • Drill Sergeant Nasty: The murderer in "Shore Leave", who does his best to drive out a recruit he believes does not belong in the Marines. He eventually kills him because Tully refuses to go along with a lie that would falsely discredit his fellow Marine.
  • Drop the Hammer: "Spiders". The Victim of the Week has her head caved in with the hammer the killer had earlier used to break the lock on the basement window so she couldn't escape.
  • The Dutiful Daughter: Lilly, who always tries to be there for her troubled, alcoholic mother despite their issues.
  • Dumb Muscle: Averted with French in "The Runaway Bunny," who serves as the PI's muscle, but is fairly resourceful and street-smart.

    E - K 
  • Eagleland: "Devil Music" is a deconstruction of Type 1, in a similar vein to Pleasantville. It's set in a seemingly-idyllic Leave It to Beaver-style community, but over the course of the episode, the victim, an Elvis Presley Expy, starts discovering and bringing to light dirty little secrets about the town, such as its incredibly-restrictive racism and sexism. He's ultimately killed by his cousin, who had bought into the facade completely and blamed the victim for taking his Utopian life away from him (but, of course, it was never utopian to begin with and the cousin was missing the point).
  • Easily Forgiven: Ken Bream from "Revenge" spends his entire life being blamed by his wife for their son’s death as well as blaming himself. Yet when the police discover that she was solely at fault he never once calls her out.
  • Electro Convulsive Therapy Is Torture: One episode's case about the unsolved killing of a mental patient in the 1960s. The victim was a girl who preferred to dress like a boy and do "boy" things, was ultimately hospitalized for "gender identity disorder" (though whether the victim was actually transgender or was just a girl who didn't like conventially feminine things is never made clear) and subjected to ECT for not abiding by the rules which the psychiatrist stipulated in "acting female", and was ultimately left catatonic due to the extent of the procedure. The victim's friend then killed the victim (in a clear homage to One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest) as a mercy kill. It's also mentioned that the psychiatrist had done the same to other patients. Thankfully, he at least gets both sued and fired over it.
  • Enemy Mine: Jimmy Tully and Gene Karnow, boxing opponents with a fair amount of Interservice Rivalry going against a threatening civilian together in "Shore Leave".
  • Enhance Button: Played with - the detectives move up close to the screen. Though Vera laments that their station is too poor to have "one of those zoomer things."
  • Enfant Terrible: Averted; most young killers are very sympathetic. The one exception is apparently John Smith, and even he only starts committing his murders as an adult (though he does let someone die as a kid).
  • Epic Fail: The low point for the three guys in "Kensington" is when they try and fail to steal a chandelier from an empty house.
  • Establishing Character Moment: At times, it's the point of the prologue. It helps to introduce the characters of the week to the audience.
    • In "Strange Fruit", a father is put-off by how a gelatin dish is brought to the BBQ by an African-American family and tries to discourage his daughter from having some. He even tries to convince her to have cake, despite her reminding him she doesn't like cake.
  • Even Evil Has Standards:
    • The killer's brother in "Strange Fruit" may be a rapist and a Morally Bankrupt Banker, but the lynching of a man and making a child watch brings even him to tears.
    • Mac in "Wishing" may be a major Jerkass, but even he is disgusted by the victim's "friend" Josh’s actions.
    • The rapist in "Offender" considers his own son off-limits.
    • The racist prison guard in "Family 8108" admits that he left the victim alone after witnessing the full extent of his horrible family life (his marriage is falling apart, his wife's pregnant, his son is rebelling, he's trying to remain sunny and upbeat despite the situation) simply because he just doesn't have it in him to pick on someone that miserable.
  • Everybody Did It: "That Woman". The killers are all members of a high school chastity club that kill one of their own for accidentally learning about all of their dark secrets.
  • Everybody Is Single: Vera is the only team member who is married, and he gets divorced in season one.
  • Evil Cannot Comprehend Good:
    • None of the smugglers in "Cargo" can understand why the victim is going out of his way to save a single girl.
    • The killer in "Stalker" honestly seems to not understand why killing someone entire's family wouldn’t send them rushing into his arms.
    • No one can understand why the victim in "Bad Reputation" would want to go straight.
  • Evil Counterpart: Some of the killers are this to the victim or someone else involved.
    • The killer in "Witness Protection" to the victim. They both made mistakes that they are trying to make amends for and have difficult family lives because of this. But while the victim is getting his life together and realizes he can’t let his family pay for his mistakes, the killer wants to hold on to what he has with an iron fist.
    • The gang leader in "The Badlands" is this to Jeffries. Both grew up in the titular neighborhood, the roughest part of Philly, and both aspired to be in the gangs. Jeffries, however, meets the right people, who straightened him out, while the positive influences in the gangster's life, the episode's victims, are killed. Jeffries using this fact to empathize with the gangster, pointing out that he'd likely have ended up the exact same way in the same situation, scores him some critical testimony.
  • Evil Matriarch: Many:
    • The victim in "Blackout" is an ex-beauty queen who needs to feel sexually attractive to men — all men, including her own son and grandson (which is what gets her killed after her neglected "plain Jane" daughter catches on).
    • The killer's mother in "Spiders" is a sweet, '50s-style mom who runs a neo-Nazi coven in her basement and emotionally railroads the other killer into committing his crime.
  • Evil Old Folks:
    • Several perps are quite elderly in the present, though with the mitigating factor that they were young when they actually committed their crimes.
    • Special mention goes to the nonagenarian, Alzheimer-afflicted guy from "World's End", who'd gotten away with his crime for almost seventy years. They still lock up the poor old guy, too, arguably a Kick the Dog for the main characters.
  • Evil Teacher: Several.
    • The guy in "True Calling" who forces his students to run drugs.
    • The coach in "Family", who molests one of his students in the locker room and apparently planned to do the same to the girl's now-grown daughter, who he may or may not have believed was also his daughter from said rape (she's not, the girl's boyfriend is the father). The actual killer is also a teacher, but played more sympathetically than the coach.
    • The Asshole Victim in "The Plan", a swimming coach who is shown to relentlessly bully and browbeat his students. As if this isn't bad enough, the investigation reveals that he is also a pedophile.
  • The coach and booster of the football team in "Glory Days", who doses the players with steroids without their consent, ruining the academic and athletic careers of at least one.
  • The ephebophilic assistant principal in "Almost Paradise", who forcibly kisses and then murders the victim.
  • Exact Words: The killer in "Bombers" stands out, as not only is he one of the few, if not the only, suspect to utter a death threat out of anger and make good on it, he does it exactly the way he said he would—by literally emptying a can of spray paint down his victim's throat.
  • Expy: The victim Julian Bellowes in "Libertyville" has a lot in common with George Bailey, right down to a similar name.
  • Extreme Doormat: Bobby in "One Small Step" just follows around the guy with the most confidence.
  • Extremely Cold Case: In "Torn", Lilly and her team investigate their oldest case yet, the murder of a woman who was killed in 1919. They soon learn that she may have been murdered because of her activism for women's rights. The only person from the original investigation still alive was a young child at the time of the murder.
  • Face–Heel Turn: Far too often in this show, the killer is the victim's loved one—a friend/relative/spouse—who turns bad.
  • Fair Cop: Particularly Lilly, who many characters consider extremely attractive. More than once somebody's wondered if she got her position by sleeping with someone (she didn't).
  • Fan Disservice:
    • The seduction scene in "Blackout". Donna Mills in a backless swimsuit going after a younger guy in a swimming pool. Hot, right? Well, by "younger" we mean "13 years old and also her grandson" so no, not really.
    • The locker room scene in "Stand Up and Holler", where two cheerleaders are forced to kiss by their Alpha Bitch team captain. Two cute cheerleaders kissing is just dandy, except for when one girl really does not want to and it's clearly a form of humiliation and emotional abuse by the entire team of football players in the locker room who demand that they do it with greater intensity.
  • Fat Bastard:
    • Brad Atwater, the doer in "Who's Your Daddy": he's a pretty hefty guy himself, and he has a history of abusing and degrading his illegal workers, from taking a cut of their paychecks for himself, to degrading women and having them lick his boots and service him sexually.
    • Jim Larkin, the doer in "Lovers' Lane", is both the heftiest perp seen on the show and one of the evilest, especially as he can't even be bothered to get victims of his own, he makes his son do it for him.
  • Fatal Flaw: The victims are usually killed because of their own best qualities.
    • "Bombers" - The victim's obsession with honoring, later avenging, his friend.
    • "The Runaway Bunny" - The victim can't help being a Deadpan Snarker even when his life is in danger.
    • "The Brush Man" - The victim's hate towards abusive husbands and fathers.
    • "Street Money" - The victim's devotion to being a completely honest politician, despite everyone from his campaign manager to his opponent telling him this is unrealistic.
  • Fate Worse than Death: The victim from "Thick as Thieves" receives this. Even as an unlikable victim (while still being the one of the better of these types of victims, she may have been a thief who made her son participate in her crimes, but she wasn't a murderer or a rapist), she is shot at point blank range but doesn't die. Instead, she ends up in a coma for twenty years.
  • A Father to His Men:
    • John Stillman, the Benevolent Boss to the unit, who will take care of all of them when they need him.
    • Lt. Brown from "The Red and The Blue" is even more of an example. His detectives all call him "Big Daddy" and Rush and Valens are encouraged to as well. They are initially hesitant to do so, but later he addresses Rush as "Little Sister" and she calls him "Big Daddy" without missing a beat.
  • Faux Interracial Relationship: The victim in "Colors" is a black man in a relationship with a white woman. Except it turns out that the woman is also black and just passing as white (he was aware of it).
  • Finally Found the Body: Some of their cases are initiated by the discovery of the victim's body, even though the victim has been dead for years.
  • Finger in the Mail: A coyote (smuggler of humans along the US-Mexico boarder) kidnaps the children of families that miss payments, cuts off their ear and mails it to the family, then kills the child if there is still no payment received.
  • Fingore:
    • The signature of the serial killer from "It Takes a Village" is to cut one of his victims' fingers off.
    • "The House" has a scene where the corrupt warden breaks two of an inmate's fingers with a pair of pliers.
  • Finishing Each Other's Sentences: Sudden Age Cuts often result in characters effectively doing this to themselves. An adult witness will start to say something, and their sentence will be finished by them as a five-year-old, for example.
  • 555: 215-555-0196, in "Saving Sammy". The number flashes on the doer's cell phone, putting him at the crime scene.
  • Fish-Eye Lens: The flashbacks in "The Hitchhiker" are mostly shot like this.
  • Flashback: The show runs on this trope in order to portray events in the past as told by people who knew or encountered the Victim of the Week.
  • Flashback Effects:
    • Flashback scenes imitate the style and appearance of actual footage from that time period, including Deliberately Monochrome for really old cases, spots on the film, and what have you.
    • An episode where the crime happened at a party in 2004 has flashback footage looking like it was filmed with a camera phone.
    • An episode set in 1990 looks as though it were filmed on home video.
    • Episode 3x01, "Family", is set in 1988. They use a pop art style with four windows in one screen, and exaggerated colors.
    • "The Woods", set in 1972, has flashbacks that appear to have been filmed with low-quality Super-8 home movie film, giving the scenes a de-saturated quality that adds to the nightmarish atmosphere of the story.
  • A Fool and His New Money Are Soon Parted: "Lotto Fever". His financial adviser states so himself.
  • Forced to Watch:
    • The killer's nine-year-old niece in "Strange Fruit" is forced to watch a lynching. The killer is a real piece of work, as you can probably tell.
    • In "A Perfect Day", Cindy's abusive husband at one point threatens "to take away what she loves the most". One of the women who runs the battered women shelter translates this as: he'll murder their children and make her watch him do it. Nice guy. He does in fact murder one of their children in front of her, but she is able to save the other.
  • Forceful Kiss: In "Superstar", "Roller Girl" and "Almost Paradise". Doesn't end well for the girls.
  • Foregone Conclusion: We already know someone's going to die—the very first minutes of each episode depict this. The flashbacks and investigations serve to reveal the identity and motive of whoever is responsible.
  • Foreign Wrestling Heel: One of the wrestlers interviewed in "One Fall" plays an angry Communist Russian character.
  • Foreshadowing: The opening scenes often drop hints as to what led to the victim's murder.
    • In "Blood On The Tracks", a character declares, "If I died tomorrow, no one would know or even care." By the episode's end, we learn that she WAS killed the very next day and that her killer assumed her identity (they looked very much alike). And indeed, there is no one in her life to notice or care. It also foreshadowed that twist in the Cold Open flashback—the killer's own husband, a longtime friend of both women, confuses her for the victim in a picture; if he can't tell the difference, how can anyone else?
    • In "Almost Paradise", when the victim defends her boyfriend from the vice principal, the camera pans down to her ass. It turns out the VP has a crush on her, and later attempts to make out with her in his car. When she rejects him and runs off, he runs her over.
  • Formula-Breaking Episode: "Officer Down" deals with a current homicide that is solved within a few hours instead of a cold case.
  • Fun-Hating Confiscating Adult: In "The Brush Man", one of the suspects is a reclusive Vietnam veteran who keeps any toy that lands on his property. When the police search his home, they find a huge stash of bikes and balls.
  • Future Loser
    • A special yet recurrent variant is to show people that were beautiful or hot in the past (and exploiting it for their benefit) to be "fugly" or having aged way worse than others in the present, even if they weren't really bad people back then. Examples include the rival male dancer in "Disco Inferno", the football player in "Stand Up and Holler", the Gold Digger in "The Runaway Bunny", the gorgeous blonde in "Justice" (a sympathetic case), and the former prom king in "Almost Paradise".
    • None are hit as hard as the dumb babysitter in "Baby Blues", who in the modern day is still dumb, really ugly and now... "works" in the street.
    • Notably averted in "Debut" - all of the young, beautiful high-society debutantes (male and female) are still fairly attractive (for their age) 40 years later. Wealth and privilege can have that effect.
    • "Almost Paradise" also has an inversion; the victim's mousy, bespectacled Hopeless Suitor grows up to be a tough martial arts instructor, albeit one who still uses an inhaler.
    • Inverted with a victim's brother in "The Badlands" who has gone from Addled Addict to upstanding military recruit in the year since the murders. It turns out that HE'S the killer and this is his effort to atone for his actions. Played straight with several other characters who have gone from being decent people to criminals.
  • Gangbangers: All of the suspects in "Saving Patrick Bubley".
  • Gas Lighting: The killer in "Slipping" tries to drive his wife to suicide by making her believe the ghost of her mother (who had killed herself) is after her, while maintaining the facade of a caring husband to her face.
  • Gay Aesop: The whole show is this, even during episodes where a gay person is not the Victim of the Week. However, it also crosses into being a Broken Aesop due to the tremendous amount of crap that the gay victim/relative/non-victim/etc. goes through during the episode.
  • Gayngst: The surviving partners in "Forever Blue" and "Best Friends", who are still closeted and mourning their one true love when the team comes to investigate decades later.
  • Gayngst-Induced Suicide: In the episode "Best Friends", a butch lesbian dies and her girlfriend lives after they try to commit suicide by driving off a bridge, while being chased by her homophobic brother.
  • "Gender-Normative Parent" Plot: "Shuffle, Ball Change", where the victim's working-class father does not support his son's love of ballet and dance and wants him to work in the family store. Subverted when he actually watches his son perform and comes to accept the boy's dance aspirations. The Big Brother Bully ends up being the killer, but not related to dance - his brother was going to tell people that he faked his Career-Ending Injury.
  • Genius Bruiser: Michael McShane, the victim in "Glory Days", turns out to be smarter than he himself thought and can have had a future away from football.
  • Gentle Giant: "Metamorphosis" has a subversion, as it is discovered that Lester is in reality a very mean Smug Snake that plays dumb to draw suspicions off him. He is Out-Gambitted and tricked into confessing to the crime.
  • Ghost Reunion Ending: The series almost always ends with somebody seeing the victim. Often they are seen by a detective but it is a loved one a lot too (especially in the later seasons).
  • Gilligan Cut: In "Saving Sammy", Valens and Vera go to interview a witness who has autism. Valens tells Vera to take off his yellow tie as the witness does not like the colour yellow. Vera refuses. The next shot has them walking into the room of the boy with autism. Vera is not wearing his tie.
  • Girl-on-Girl Is Hot: In "Stand Up and Holler", this is the obvious in-universe intent behind the tradition of having two newly-inducted high school cheerleaders kiss each other on the lips, as exemplified by the entire team of football players demanding they use tongue. Hot for the football players, not so much for the audience.
    • Discussed in "Torn". Audrey Abruzzi is amused when the detectives suggest that her mother and the murder victim were lovers. (They weren't.)
  • Go Out with a Smile: The victim in "The River" flashes his friend a smile, after requesting that said friend kill him so his wife and son can collect on his life insurance policy. He wears it right up to the moment his friend honors his wish and shoots him.
  • A God Am I: Played with in "The Woods".
    George Marks: I AM GOD IN THESE WOODS!!
    Lilly: No, George, you're not... you're a scared little boy... whose mother didn't love him.
  • God Is Evil: George Marks believes that "God's a sociopath." John Smith refers to Him as "the greatest conman of all."
  • Gold Digger: Johanna shows signs of this in "Blood on the Tracks". The only reason she kills her husband is because his confessing would have ruined her life of wealth.
    • The victim's family in "Lotto Fever" in addition to his one-time girlfriend, who soon dumps him after getting what she needs from him.
    • The eponymous Sherry Stephens from "Sherry Darlin'" who convinces her ex-boyfriend to kill his grandmother for the insurance money. In the present day, she is a wealthy doctor's wife who is hated by the rest of the family for this very reason.
  • Good Cannot Comprehend Evil:
    • The target in "Sabotage" can’t comprehend the fact that his brother is trying to kill him. It reaches the point of Weirdness Censor, forcing the police to sit him down and make him see reason.
    • Or apparently crazy, as is the case of the victim in "A Dollar, A Dream". After the victim and her daughters wind up homeless due to her husband and sole breadwinner's death from cancer, they all end up living in their car and she befriends a fellow homeless man, who ends up killing her due to his belief that she is holding out on a lottery ticket that is worth a lot of money. She does win, but it's only enough for pocket change for him and enough to buy a birthday cake for her younger daughter. Unfortunately, she has no idea how unstable the man is; he becomes convinced that she won the jackpot and is holding out on him, with tragic results.
    • Several victims end up dying due to having too much trust in their killers. Two examples which at best could be explained by their young ages are "Sleepover" and "That Woman". The former has a friendly 12-year-old who can't grasp why the "cool" girls would invite her to their slumber party just to make fun of her. The latter has a promiscuous 16-year-old girl who joins her school's Christian Club and is confused about the fellow members considering their "unholy" actions (like premarital sex and exploring their sexuality) to be secrets worth killing her for.
  • Good Cop/Bad Cop: Averted. The characters usually go with the no sympathy route with suspects.
  • Good Girls Avoid Abortion:
    • The agenda of a suspect in season 3 opener "Family". She's a school nurse who talks kids out of getting their pregnancies "taken care of" because "murder is never easy." The show doesn't push the issue, as the character is a radical who has been arrested on multiple occasions in the process of pushing her cause, usually violently.
      Suspect: "I wanted him to see what goes on at the killing mills!"
      Vera: "Bite me."
    • Averted in Season One's "Volunteers". The victims were helping run an abortion clinic in the 60's, and are even presented heroically because of this. One of the victims' friends tells the detectives that the female victim initially found the clinic (which, unlike many back-alley "clinics" at the time, was operated by an actual doctor) when she needed an abortion, and was so grateful for being able to get a safe procedure (especially after seeing the horror show that one of her friends went through) that she joined the group to help other women get the same.
  • Good Bad Girl: The victim in "That Woman". While she may be promiscuous and very lewd, she generally tries to be a decent person and even joins her high school's chastity club in order to reform herself. Too bad her fellow members end up killing her...
  • Gorgeous George: One of the wrestlers interviewed in "One Fall" plays an effete, feather boa-clad heel character. He isn't the killer, but he witnesses the crime and does nothing, and so is arrested as Accomplice by Inaction.
  • The Greatest Story Never Told: Most victims are genuinely heroic people, which is usually why they get murdered, but the details of all the good things they'd done are only revealed as the investigation proceeds.
  • Green-Eyed Monster:
    • The killer in "One Small Step". He is a rich kid who only recruits the victim because of the boy's technical know-how. Unfortunately, as time passes, his flunkies look towards the victim as the leader after the kid faces down and injures the psychopathic older brother of one of them and manages to talk the curmudgeonly junk yard dealer into giving them rocket fuel. When the killer fails to make a jump due to fear, the victim tries to save his life; this causes the killer to snap and lash out in shame. It's so strong that even 40 years later the team is able to goad him into confessing by exploiting that jealousy.
    • Hilary in "The Goodbye Room", a teenage girl who has just given birth and is trying to run away from the convent where they are going to give her daughter up for adoption, is killed by one of her fellow teen moms out of jealousy because she had to give up her baby and Hilary didn't.
  • Guilt-Ridden Accomplice: Several.
    • The victim in "Blood on the Tracks" is killed because he himself is one and wants to go to the police.
    • In "Forever Blue", the victim's father, a police sergeant, hires another cop to beat the homosexuality out of his son; unfortunately, the guy is completely Axe-Crazy and shoots him instead. He keeps this a secret well into his twilight years, until the detectives persuade him to tearfully give up himself and the killer.
    • All the members of the chastity club, barring the captain, in "That Woman".
  • Hanging Judge: Judge Alvarez in "Jurisprudence", who sentences young offenders to long sentences for minor crimes in exchange for kickbacks from the reform centre where they are sent.
  • Hate Sink:
    • The episodes with a Sympathetic Murderer typically also include a genuinely-vile secondary character so the audience has someone to root against - the pedophilic social worker in "Fly Away", the date-rapist club owner in "Roller Girl", the slimeball who sells a machine pistol to a kid in "Time to Crime", and so on. Sometimes this character is even the victim themselves.
    • The school nurse from "Family". Aside from being The Fundamentalist who manipulates the young couple into keeping their baby by showing them gruesome pictures of aborted fetuses and gleefully running a woman who works at a clinic off the road, it's also learned that she is carrying on an affair with the married math teacher and murderer.
    • The frat leader in "The Promise". After luring the victim and her friends into going to a "pig party" and one of them setting the house on fire in revenge, he locks her in a room to die for embarrassing them and continues to badmouth her memory in the present day.
  • Have You Told Anyone Else?: A variation is occasionally used where the key piece of evidence is a prized possession of the victim's that has mysteriously gone missing; usually, this item turning up in the hands of one of the suspects is all the detectives need to close the case.
  • Heel–Face Door-Slam:
    • The victim (and Serial Killer partner) in "Lonely Hearts", thinking she's outlived her usefulness, attempts to join forces with another woman he's conned and kill him. Unfortunately, the woman is in love with the killer still, and ends up shooting the other woman In the Back.
    • The murdered suffragette in "Torn" is coerced into betraying her friends and decides to try to rejoin them. She is instead accidentally killed by her mother.
    • The killer from "Boy Crazy" abandons the victim, a girl who looks like a boy, after she kissed him, because he doesn't want anyone to think he's gay. He tries to break her out of a mental institution but he is too late; they have already tampered with her brain, leaving her half-dead. All he can do is finish her off.
  • Heel Realization:
    • The father in "Superstar" realizing he’s been neglecting his youngest daughter all these years by obsessing over his oldest daughter’s death and her lost career.
    • The guy who hires someone to steal his car for the insurance in "Resolutions" after coming this close to going down for murder due how much of a Jerkass he is, to the point that that he becomes The Atoner.
    • The father in "Shuffle, Ball Change", who declares, "It haunts me how I raised those boys. Pushing one (the athletic wrestler who is more like him), ignoring the other (the one who is more like his late wife)", realizing that he set the stage for one to murder the other out of jealousy.
  • He Knows Too Much:
    • Part of the reason why the teacher in "True Calling" is murdered is because she knows a fellow teacher is using drugs and forcing her student to bring them to him.
    • "Blood on the Tracks", where one of the victims wants to confess to the police about a crime that he and the other suspects had all been involved in—only to be killed before he can.
    • "That Woman", in which the victim is killed after she's unfortunate enough to discover the Dark Secret of everyone in her chastity club.
    • The killer in "One Small Step" kills his victim because the boy sees him scared.
  • Heroic BSoD / Heroic Willpower: The father in "Family 8108" goes through this after his son dies. It's made all the more obvious due to the fact that he endures all of the hardships of World War II-era Japanese citizens, but he can't cope with knowing that his son died while they were still mad at each other. He bounces right back up the moment he finds out that wasn’t true.
  • Hidden Depths: Every suspect and victim, as well as other people involved in the crimes, has one. The Killer and eponymous stalker in Stalker in addition to being a trained nurse is also an EMT before love makes him crazy. Showing that he is capable of doing good things for people. It's also strongly implied that he comes from an abusive home. None of this is ever really explored.
  • His Name Is...: "Yo, Adrian", where a dying boxing referee makes a confession about a 1976 fight where a boxer died in the ring, but expires before he can name who was responsible.
  • Hoist by His Own Petard:
    • "Hubris": The killer frames someone else for the crime and then asks the police to reopen the case, hoping to get that person convicted so the victim's family would get off his back. Unfortunately, the detectives are smarter than he thought and his intended patsy cooperates fully with them, allowing the case to lead right back to him. Oops.
    • In "Strange Fruit", the killer punishes his little niece for befriending a black man by making her watch the murder. Guess whose testimony is what puts him away in the end?
    • The boyfriend and killer in "Saving Sammy" kills his girlfriend’s parents when he finds out that they are moving, hoping that would allow her to stay. However, she ends up so distraught over their death that she breaks up with him.
  • Hollywood Law:
    • Granted, given this show is more fantasy-driven than fact-based, but some common police procedurals and conduct displayed here are blatantly disregarded and are downright illegal in real life. One very prevalent example was in the sixth episode of the series, "Love Conquers Al" where the killer's so-called best friend, Will Harrell, constantly stonewalled detectives regarding his knowledge of/involvement in the murder of a teenaged high school track star. At the end of the episode, he was seen still working at the garage as he was before, but in real life, he would have been arrested both for being an accessory after the fact and for obstruction of justice.
    • A similar case is the accomplice's secretary in "Start Up", who knew for years that her boss had given the killer the poison he used to kill the victim, but kept silent due to her fear of him. The boss is arrested as accessory, but she isn't.
    • The headmistress of the school for the deaf is used as an interpreter in "Andy in C Minor". Leaving aside the fact that the Philadelphia Police Department probably either has one on staff already or could easily enlist a sign language interpreter, is it really advisable to use a possible suspect as an interpreter?
    • The gang leader in "Knuckle Up" is not arrested for running away from the scene of a murder, despite doing so making him an Accomplice by Inaction. Same goes for the girls in "The Promise".
    • As noted below, at the end of "World's End" the squad arrests the nonagenarian, Alzheimer's-afflicted Felton Metz as the man's son is begging them to let him live out his final days in peace. In reality, the fellow would be out of custody before the cops finished filing the paperwork, because the lawyer the son would call would invoke the defense principle that an individual with dementia as advanced as Metz's is in no wise competent to give a legally-admissible confession. It's not unreasonable though, to assume something like this might have happened anyway.
    • Detectives usually need a solid reason for reopening a cold case, such as the discovery of new evidence or eyewitness testimony. The show usually gets this right, but there are a few episodes where in reality the reason presented would not be enough. For example, in "It's Raining Men", Rush reopens a twenty-one year old case simply because a man wants his long-dead lover's murder solved as a wedding present.
    • The detectives will occasionally badger a suspect into not calling their lawyer, something very much not allowed in real life.
  • Hollywood Old:
    • Actors who are only in their 60's are frequently hired to play characters in their 70's, 80's, or even 90's.
    • Particularly noticeable in "Family 8108", where two characters old enough to have teenage children in the 1940s don't look a day past a very well-aged 70 in the present, and in fact a friend and peer of one of said children actually looks older than them. One of the two (ostensibly) older characters also picked up an accent with age somehow.
  • Homeless Pigeon Person: There is a one-shot character who had known and mentored the victim of the week and is your typical pigeon keeper. He's like this due to depression caused by a mistake in his airplane design leading to several accidental deaths.
  • Honest John's Dealership: Such a dealership and its almost universally sleazy sales force are central to events in "The Dealer".
  • Honor-Related Abuse: Explored as a possible motive in "Chinatown", as the boyfriend and girlfriend victims are Chinese and Vietnamese respectively and their relationship is thus looked down upon by the community. This turns out not to be the case; they are killed because they got caught up in a feud involving the local Tong boss.
  • Hot for Preacher: The chastity club president in "That Woman", who begins a relationship with the teacher/youth counselor in spite of values they both allegedly have in place.
  • Hot Guy, Ugly Wife: The handsome lothario in "Lonely Hearts" likes to court unattractive women, mostly because he knows they are so desperate they'll put up with his crap and therefore be easy to scam. But when his latest victim calls him out and instead of turning him in, suggests working with him and ratcheting up their schemes to include murder, he seems downright turned on. When she herself is killed (not by him, ironically), he's so despondent that he never takes up with another partner and years later finally kills himself while watching a videotape that she made, implying that he genuinely fell in love with her.
  • How We Got Here: The flashbacks that fill in the gap between when we first meet the victim and when they are murdered. Occasionally, they even fill in the blanks from before the introduction.
  • Hunting the Most Dangerous Game: The character of George Marks, played by John Billingsley, is shown hunting his victims in forests, much like the real-life serial killer Robert Hansen.
  • Hypocrite: Ellie in "Revolution" regularly seemed to justify her actions while condemning others for theirs.
  • I Coulda Been a Contender!: Many of the victims die before they reach their full potential.
  • Idiot Ball: The agent in "Witness Protection" sleeping with his client’s wife as well as not telling him he was living near one of the people he thought he was testifying against.
  • If I Can't Have You…: A common motive for killers, be it a friend ("Andy In C Minor"), lover ("November 22nd") or even a family member.
  • I Just Shot Marvin in the Face: All over the place in "Time to Crime", with the same MAC-10. Two kids are playing with guns in a hallway, and an adult is horrified to learn that one of the guns is real and fully loaded. Two college kids get their hands on the gun, and decide to randomly shoot some geese. They also end up hitting a nearby horse. Most heartrendingly, the killer of the episode shoots at a crowded park and not only misses his target, but also kills his little sister.
  • I Just Want to Be Normal: Lampshaded, during the episode "Thick as Thieves", by the victim's son, who turns out to be the one who planned her death. Considering he had been on the road with his mother since he was 6, it's not surprising he'd feel that way.
  • I Know Mortal Kombat: The victim in "Stealing Home" uses his skill as a baseball player to get into the country.
  • I Lied: Rare heroic example, believe it or not. In "Spiders", the detectives get a former white supremacist to give up her even more evil ex-boyfriend by saying, "It's you or him". After she gives a full statement, they arrest her and say "We meant you and him."
  • I Remember Because...: For a show that relies mostly on witness statements going back as far as 1919, they really don't rely on this trope much. Someone who claims not to remember something unremarkable from 20 years ago is almost certainly lying. That said, they do put forth the effort sometimes.
    • An early episode has Lilly expect a witness not to remember anything specific about the night a girl her boyfriend might have known was killed, but she remembers exactly where she was because she was losing her virginity to said boyfriend. Subverted. She and the boyfriend killed the girl because he'd cheated with her.
    • Season 6 has episodes where the victim was killed during the first moon landing ("One Small Step") and the same day as JFK ("November 22").
    • An old man in "Static" recalls a random conversation between the victim and a suspect from nearly fifty years prior... because the suspect later did time for killing a bank teller during a robbery.
  • The Illegal:
    • The Eastern European women in "Cargo".
    • The victims in "Who's Your Daddy?"
  • I'm Cold... So Cold...: When a villain flashes back to his first kill (inadvertent, as he merely let the woman die rather than outright harming her), he remembers a woman trapped in a well, frantically treading water and babbling, "Cold. . .so cold".
  • Impoverished Patrician: "Beautiful Little Fool" involves a formerly rich family who lost everything in the Stock Market Crash. By the present day, the only surviving member of the family is an old woman who was but a child in 1929. She still lives in her family's faded mansion. She does, however, mention that while the family lost a lot at first, they essentially survived the Crash and didn't fall as hard as others, which makes it all the more sad, since they could've taken in her brother's baby daughter.
  • Improvised Weapon: Since a lot of the murders are spur-of-the-moment, lots of different objects have been used. Some examples include a clock, a metronome, a phone, a crutch, and a skateboard.
  • Incriminating Indifference: Vera becomes suspicious of the victim's boyfriend in "Our Boy Is Back" after noticing that the man is rude and hostile when being questioned and refuses to cooperate by taking a DNA test. While not illegal, it's in stark contrast to how a grieving boyfriend would act. Ironically, the man is innocent.
  • Ineffectual Sympathetic Villain: The killer in "The Hitchhiker" doesn't really have any noteworthy redeeming qualities, but he can be considered rather pitiable due to what an utter failure he is.
  • I Never Said It Was Poison:
    • How they trip up the doer in "Red Glare" - he knows something about the victim that he could've only known if he'd been the last one to see him alive.
    • Played with in "The Hitchhiker". The first prime suspect, a violent-tempered truck driver, seems to slip up this way when he denies killing "that hitchhiker". The detectives never told him the victim was hitching at the time of his death. As it turns out, he didn't kill the episode's victim. He did however kill two other hitchhikers the cops were trying to nail him for.
    • The killer in "8:03 AM" gives himself away by correctly identifying the type of gun used in the murder without being told.
    • One of the Neo-Nazis in "Spiders", when told a witness saw her at the scene of a murder, replies: "That's impossible; it was pitch-dark!"
    • The killer in "Breaking News" knows about an interview he couldn't have known about unless he was involved with the murder.
    • The killer in "Fireflies" says the name of the witness who saw him before the cops even mention it.
    • The killer in "The Dealer" denies both killing the victim and stealing her bonus. The detectives had only mentioned her money being stolen, not the source of that money.
  • Interservice Rivalry: Turns up in the episode "Shore Leave". A Marine bound for the Korean War is murdered while on furlough in Philadelphia. He is known to have rubbed several sailors the wrong way, and to have beaten the Navy champion in a shipboard boxing match, so the cold case team wonder if his murder could have been a case of interservice rivalry getting out of hand, especially after they learn he ventured into a Navy bar. However, a flashback reveals that the sailors did resent his presence there and would have beaten him up, only he was threatened by a civilian, which caused all of the sailors to rally behind him.
  • Intrepid Reporter: The Victim of the Week in "Breaking News".
  • In with the In Crowd: The main conflict in "Stand Up And Holler", which gets the victim killed. The Alpha Bitch murdered her because the latter had found out her friend was gang-raped as the final part of her initiation into the cheerleading squad. The friend could have saved her but didn't because she wanted to be popular. Actually, the Alpha Bitch didn't intend to murder the victim - she forced beer down her throat without knowing it was drugged by the victim's best friend. And she did not attack the victim because the victim knew anything, she was angry because the victim wanted to leave the cheerleading squad herself.
  • Irony: Two
    • In "Witness Protection," the ex-con trying to get his life together is the one who kills a federal witness. He kills the witness because the man won’t tell him where his son is, whom the ex-con thinks is with his daughter. The moment he kills him, his daughter calls.
    • In "The Badlands", we realize that what causes a victim's drug addict brother to get his act together and genuinely become an upstanding citizen in the year since the murder is that HE'S the killer and is so horrified by his actions that he's been trying to atone ever since.
  • I See Dead People:
    • At the end of most episodes, the ghost of victim is seen by the officers and/or by someone whom they were close to (family, friend, etc.). Occasionally the killer will also see the victim.
    • Subverted in episodes in which the victim is not seen: one because the case isn't closed, and another because the victim is only an infant at the time of death. And then, there's the one where it turns out the victim isn't dead.
  • It's All About Me: Sharon in "November 22nd"
  • It's Personal:
    • A variation of it in "Honor". When he learns that their victim is a Vietnam POW, Stillman (a veteran himself) orders the detectives to treat the case like he is one of their own.
    • In "Bad Night", Jeffries' flashback to arriving at the scene of his wife's accident. Watch the state trooper's visible change in demeanor when he realizes that he's not just speaking to a bereaved husband, but to a fellow officer.
  • I Want My Mommy!:
    • "Mind Hunters" has the teenage track star cry out, "I want my Daddy!" just before George Marks fatally shoots her.
    • "Shuffle, Ball Change" has the aspiring dancer cry out for his father as his jealous older brother crushes his foot with his crutch then beats him to death with it.
  • Jackie Robinson Story:
    • "Colors". In fact, a good portion of the victims fall into this category, given that their murder is related to the social issues of the time.
    • Lilly's racist first partner Detective Fulcrum, seen in flashback in "Saving Patrick Bubley." It's implied rather strongly he wrote off pretty much all of his cases where the victim was poor and black as "public service murders" and made no effort to solve them.
    • "Our Boy Is Back": The boyfriend of a rape victim who refuses to give a DNA sample because it will prove that he had never slept with the victim.
  • Jerkass Ball: Vera tends to catch this whenever the writers need to make a point. He's made misogynistic statements, expressed belief in the "no humans involved" principle (that criminals killed by criminals aren't worth the police's time), and even made a pro-rape comment at one point, which is especially weird since in other episodes he's the one most disgusted by rapists.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold:
  • Vera offers to pay the hospital bills of a mother whom he had mouthed off to earlier.
  • The victim's tutor in "Glory Days," after years of working his ass off while watching Dumb Jock get a free ride, becomes very jaded and starts to see the jocks as a means to an end. But once he sees that the victim not only takes school very seriously but is also very intelligent, they become fast friends. It also helps that the victim is a Lovable Jock.
  • The dance instructor in "Shuffle, Ball Change" combines this with Drill Sergeant Nasty. At first, he comes off as a complete asshole towards the victim, but he recognizes talent when he sees it. Knowing the victim is unable to leave his job at the family supermarket to take lessons, he makes it a point to visit the market daily and teach the victim on the sly.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Jerk:
    • Vince Patrielli in "Running Around". There are implications that he may have had some affection for the victim (he actually speaks respectfully of her when asked about her, and goes from smug to somewhat hurt when accused of murdering her), but it's also clear he has no regrets about raping and impregnating her best friend (he even seems to consider the kid "lucky" for having parents that will raise him).
    • All of the rapists on this show are considered this.
    • Charles Danville, the Asshole Victim of the episode "Greed". He has no qualms about screwing people over for money, but when one of his mentees falls in love with him, it looks like he might have genuine affection for him. Well, if he has, it doesn't stop him from stealing from the kid's mother, and telling him as much without a shred of regret. This particular act of callousness is what gets him killed in the end.
    • "Revenge": Tina Bream is a My Beloved Smother who blames her husband for their son getting kidnapped because he let him go to the dressing room by himself. She also believes Police Are Useless so when the ransom fails, she blames him again for trusting them. It turns out the kidnapping is entirely her fault because she told her drug addict brother-in-law about money that was supposed to be kept secret and then told him about the police sting operation, tipping him off. What truly makes her this? After finding out that their son is dead, she manipulates her husband into killing the one they thought was responsible and afterwards, she continues to blame him.
  • Just One Little Mistake:
    • This comes up a lot in the suspects' earlier interviews, before the confession. By rights, they should be saying something like "I met with the victim and we planned a robbery so she could collect the insurance," with the flashback on-screen being something that the audience sees to facilitate the story, but it always turns out that the suspect is literally describing the encounter down to the smallest detail, so the suspect is telling the police "I planned to take these specific items, and the signal was that her phone would ring twice," even though there was no reason to include that specific information.
    • "The Road" has probably the best example in the series. Guy gets pulled over for speeding. Traffic cop notices blood in his car. Detectives are called in to investigate. Investigation reveals guy is actually a brutal Serial Killer.
      • Perhaps an even bigger example in the same episode is when the killer overshares details about his latest victim's final hours and mentions she was able to keep her sanity because she could count the days using the chiming of a nearby church's bells. Rush's Kensington background allows her to identify the location of the church and by extension, the basement where the victim is walled up, allowing her to be saved in time and reunited with her fiancé.
    • Several other episodes (including "Debut" and "Sandhogs") have the villains' greed get the better of them and they steal a victim's prized possession off the body.
    • One suspect in "Devil Music", in his first interview, sings a few lines of a song written by the victim. Later on, however, another witness claims that she is the only one the victim had told about the song. Adding to the fact that the first guy turns out to have lied about his alibi, this makes the case a slam-dunk.
    • Speaking of alibis, the villain in "Iced" contracting out his snowplow job to his underage cousin turns out to be what does him in, as the plow company's records are able to confirm it was the cousin behind the wheel that night.
    • In "The Dealer", the killer is caught because he stripped the victim's car for parts and added them to his own. The detectives actually point out that if he had just refrained from doing this, he almost certainly would've gotten away with it.
    • In "November 22nd", the culprit makes the mistake of writing a letter to the victim's last rival, calling him the nickname she called him.
  • Karma Houdini:
    • Although George dies in "The Woods", it's Suicide by Cop that happens on his own terms (at the hand of the one person he felt was worthy of ending his life).
    • In "Death Penalty: Final Appeal", the crooked DA who gets an innocent man executed simply loses his job.note 
    • Scotty never suffers any consequences for engineering the death of his mother's rapist, nor for beating up a would-be pedophile (though Scotty's assessment of him is correct, the man had technically not done anything illegal and as such, there is no reason for Scotty's assault on him). Ironic, since throughout the series he is reprimanded for other mistakes that he's made. In the latter case, this is likely due to the show being cancelled before there was a chance to explore that plot line further.
    • In "Stand Up and Holler", while the Alpha Bitch who organized the rape of the Woobie, Destroyer of Worlds killer is arrested, neither the Jerk Jock who actually committed the crime nor the slimy loser gym teacher who covered it up in a desperate attempt to get all the Jerk Jocks and Alpha Bitches to like him are ever seen facing charges, though as statute of limitations hasn't expired, it is feasible that the killer flips on them to get a deal off-screen or something.
    • "Running Around", that case of the murdered Amish girl. Her friend had been raped and impregnated but she refuses to press charges because it would wreck her family.
    • In cases that are decades old (not counting genuine accidents or those with sympathetic motives), many of the killers are this to some degree, as they've gotten to live most of their lives with no consequences for their actions, even if they're finally arrested in the end — not to mention those cases where the killer has already died and therefore can't be punished at all. Subverted with Chuck Pierce. It's revealed that all of his attempts to achieve success ultimately fell short, and he spent 40 years very much aware that his victim was better.
    • The guy in "Red Glare" qualifies to an extent. The cops arrest him, but he smugly notes that given his age (the crime took place 50 years ago and he was at least 30 then), he's likely to be let off with a slap on the wrist. By extension, this may also be true of similarly aged villains such as in "Sandhogs", "WASP", "Family 8108", "Factory Girls", and maybe "Shore Leave".
    • Downplayed in "The House", "Late Returns" and "Roller Girl" where a legal loophole leaves the detectives unable to arrest the killer, but a.) the death was accidental (though the "killer" still didn't report it, which was definitely wrong), and b.) all three episodes include a genuinely evil character who is sent to jail (the one in "Late Returns" is arguably responsible for the death anyway, and was also a murderer in her own time).
    • A lot of people in the series - while not committing the actual murder - do play a big part in it and would have gone down for at least manslaughter in real life. Geraldine, the secretary in "Start Up," is a good example. She knows her boss has poisoned the victim with his own medication, and she even covers it up by refilling the boss's prescription. That'd be at least an accessory to first-degree murder charge in real life, but the detectives let her off, implicitly due to the fact that she's absolutely terrified of her boss.
    • The ex-partner from "Disco Inferno" says she will sleep with the killer if he breaks the victim's leg to ruin her rival's chances: not only does she get off scot-free (she hires someone to commit a crime and someone is killed in the process of said crime), she is able to get out of the fire unscarred, yet her rival has the entire right side of her body burned.
    • Leah in "Wishing": Filing a False Rape Accusation heightens the stress of the victim‘s mother and makes it so that he can never be put in a proper facility, making the killer desperate enough to do what he does.
    • The wife in "Witness Protection" cheats on her husband with the agent assigned to them. He ends up madder at the agent than at his wife.
    • The Cold Case team actively helps the killer in "Justice" evade prosecution because he is the brother of one of the rape victims and was a child at the time. In fairness, this one could be considered Justified given all the factors involved.
    • The guy that organizes, and participates in, the brutal rape of the victim in "The Letter" dies peacefully of old age, surrounded by family. The fact that he is a rapist is completely unknown for almost seventy years, by which point he is already dead. Compare the actual killer, who is much more sympathetic and is still alive, but whom they still arrest.
    • The Evil Stepmother from "The Runaway Bunny", infamously so. While the eponymous "Bunny" is found safe and the killer of the private investigator is also found, she is still likely the murderer of her husband and Bunny's father, but isn't charged by the end of the episode and mocks Lilly for walking away scot-free not unlike George Marks.
    • Whoever stabbed to death the imprisoned father that is suspected of killing his sons in a fire in "Flashover" (who is in all likelihood innocent of the crime and said "crime" was shaping up to be an accident) is never identified.
    • The nun in "The Goodbye Room". She's just as culpable for the crime of baby brokering committed at the unwed mothers home after the children's births, but she is not arrested.
    • The Jerkass doctor in "Boy Crazy". He administers the electroshock therapy on Sam and the other patients who don’t comply with the demanded female standards they had to follow to the point of Sam being left with permanent brain damage, but he is never charged with his crimes since he had already died of cancer twenty years earlier.
    • This happens less and less as the series goes on, with second and even third parties being shown to get their comeuppance.
  • Karmic Jackpot: Happens occasionally to secondary characters, such as Gene Karnow in Shore Leave, who meets his future wife when she walks up to him, impressed after he helps his rival Jimmy Tully overpower a jealous longshoreman threatening him with a gun.
  • Kavorka Man: Det. Vera. Even though he NEVER stays with any of the women he hooks up with, it boggles the mind how someone as uncouth as he is always tends to get them.
  • Kids Are Cruel: "The Sleepover". The victim, a mousey teen named Rita, is invited by her wannabe-popular former bestie, Ariel, to a sleepover where the popular girls mock her appearance and weight and only half-joke about killing her. The leader ends up tossing Rita and Ariel out despite the fact that (or partially because) Rita tries to save her from her abusive parents. This results in Ariel thinking she's not part of the clique anymore, blaming Rita for it, and killing her in a fit of rage as a result.
  • Kill and Replace: One case is about a couple killed in a gas explosion in their home. The husband reveals to their friends that he is going to turn themselves in for the accidental death of another friend. So the wife convinces her ex-lover to make a homemade bomb which she uses to kill her husband (and a friend of theirs whom no one knew was staying over). She then steals said friend's identity because they bear a strong resemblance to each other and she has no family or friends who would notice the difference.
  • Kick the Dog: It's not hard to see the detectives as doing this at the end of "World's End" when they arrest the ancient, Alzheimer's-afflicted Felton Metz while the man's son (whom, it's implied, has independently figured out his father is the killer) is begging them to let him live out his final days in peace.
  • Knight of Cerebus: The FBI agents from "Red Glare". Everything turns black & white when they come around.

    L - R 
  • Lady Drunk:
    • Ellen Rush is this, having been one all through Lilly's childhood.
    • The abusive mother in "Blackout" is this, which is implied to have made her believe it was alright to molest her son and grandson.
  • Laser-Guided Karma: Because of his claustrophobia and the nature of his crimes, merely being caught is this for the killer in "The Road", as it means he’ll spend the rest of his life locked in a cell.
  • Left the Background Music On: The music playing during flashbacks or at the end is occasionally shown to be playing in-universe. In "8 Years", "Glory Days" is playing on a jukebox in a bar; in "Wednesday's Women", "This Little Light of Mine" is a lullaby Kat Miller is singing to her daughter; and in "Shore Leave", "Taps" is being played on the bugle at the Marine's funeral.
  • Let Off by the Detective:
    • The Domestic Abuser cop in "A Perfect Day" (that murders his own four-year-old daughter who is the Victim of the Week) is killed a few years after the crime during a police shootout with a gang where he "accidentally" gets caught in the crossfire after his whole squad finds out about his abusive tendencies. The officer that confesses 50 years later is told by Vera and Jeffries that they "have no record" of this revelation.
    • Likewise, in "Justice", where the dead guy is a Serial Rapist murdered by the then-12-year-old brother of one of his victims, Rush and Valens goad the brother into saying he acted in self-defense, with Vera and Jeffries turning off the audio in the interview room and claiming to hear nothing. The case is later closed as a justifiable homicide and he faces no charges.
  • Lighter and Softer: As far as cop shows go, anyway. Karma Houdinis are rare, the victims are usually genuinely good people, and the detectives often manage to solve several other people's problems by solving the case. Granted, there's still plenty of rape, murder, and misery to go around, but compared to, say, CSI (where the victims and killers are frequently equally scummy and the perp gets away with it much more often), there is a much greater sense of hope in Cold Case.
  • Like a Son to Me: The killers' relationship to the victims' in "Glory Days" and "Breaking News". Also invoked by the theatre director in "Willkommen".
  • Lives in a Van: In "A Dollar, A Dream", a car is found at the bottom of a lake with the remains of a woman missing since 1999 inside. The detectives learn the woman had endured dire financial straits after her husband's death and was forced to live in the car with her two young daughters.
  • Lonely at the Top: The prom queen victim in "Almost Paradise". As the episode progresses, she makes peace with everyone she's alienated and pissed off with her popularity, only to be murdered over something completely unrelated that same night.
  • The Lost Lenore:
    • The victim's boyfriend from "Lover's Lane". Although he is now a married father of two, he still openly pines for his long-slain girlfriend to the point of it destroying his current marriage.
    • The victim's widow in "The Runner" is a gender-flipped example. Not only is she still suffering from his death 30 years later, but the shock and stress of his murder caused her to miscarry their unborn child, a girl.
    • An odd occurrence happens in "Maternal Instincts": a witness had a crush on the victim and believed her to be "the one", in spite of her loose character and not being interested in him. In the present day, he's a lot more cynical.
    • Subverted with Det. Jeffries: he loved his wife dearly and properly mourns her, but not to the point of letting it ruin his life (save for a season four arc where he was searching for her hit-and-run killer, only to ultimately forgive him in the end).
  • Lovable Jock: The victim and his best friend in "Glory Days". The coach and sponsor of the team had been slipping them steroids against their will, the side-effects of which cause the friend to lose his scholarship. When the victim confronts the sponsor, the sponsor murders him.
  • Love Makes You Evil: "The Hen House", "Lonely Hearts", "Resolutions", "Saving Sammy", "Soul".
  • Lying to the Perp: Done by almost every detective at least once, and especially recurrent in the case of Vera. Discussed in "Blood on the Tracks", where the right to do so is described as a good reason to be a cop instead of a prosecutor.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: The "apparitions" that appear at the end of every episode.
  • Make It Look Like an Accident: "Blood on the Tracks". The explosion that kills the two victims is thought to be due to an accidental gas leak. 20-something years later, evidence surfaces revealing that it was the result of a bomb. A handful of other deaths as well were initially thought to be accidental, suicide, or even natural causes.
  • Manchild: "Stand Up and Holler". The victim's friend is gang-raped as the final part of her initiation into the cheerleading squad. One of the teachers who used to be unpopular in his day had covered up the rapes because he was still desperately trying to be in with the cool kids.
    • The killer in "Who's Your Daddy" is this to an extent. When he accidentally shoots the male victim in an attempt to get the female victim to service him, he snivels and whimpers because now he's "gotta kill [her] too". Almost akin to a child who drops his ice cream, so now he'll have to throw it away.
  • Manipulative Bastard: Mel Davis, the killer in "Resolutions". Jealous of his best friend, Greg Cardiff, and his family, he kills him by poisoning him. He then marries Greg's widow, Susan, leaving his own wife high and dry. He allows two innocent people to take the fall for his crime (as they thought they killed Greg by striking him with their car, even though he was already dead when he was hit). After it's eventually discovered to be a murder instead of an accident some years later, Mel then tries to pin Greg's death on his second wife/Greg's widow. When that fails and as the detectives discover he's the real killer and close in on him, he kills himself to avoid arrest, preventing any real justice to be found in the case and leaving his wife a widow and stepson fatherless for the second time.
  • Manipulative Bitch: Many of the female killers, but the killer from "Blood on the Tracks" stands out. Her ex even calls her this during one of the earlier flashbacks, never realizing how right he is. Within 24 hours after this confrontation, she's able to entice him into killing her husband with the promise of them rekindling their relationship and going on the run together. She has no intention of doing this, of course. Instead, she leaves her husband and her friend to die, assumes her friend's identity (they looked very much alike) and spends the next 20-something years living the life of her friend while her ex suffers for years thinking that he killed her and knowing that he can't turn her in if he ever figures out what really happened, as he'll be turning himself in as well.
  • Manly Gay: The closeted cops in "Forever Blue".
  • Married to the Job:
    • Led to the pre-series divorces of John Stillman, and is the reason for some of Lilly's failed relationships.
    • Subverted in Vera's case. Yes, like with Stillman, his job was very important to him, but it's seen and implied many times that he was unfaithful to his wife and was unable to get her pregnant, all of this culminating in her leaving him.
  • Maternally Challenged: The victim's mother in "Maternal Instincts". She admits that she never wanted children, is cold and distant to her daughter throughout her childhood and even when she learns of her daughter's death and that the killer is arrested after 15 years, she isn't too bothered by it.
  • Meaningful Echo: At the end of "Bombers", having learned that his mother was raped, Scotty is distressed to see her pulling away from his father when he touches her hand. After he's avenged her, at the end of "Almost Paradise", he's pleased to see HER reaching for HIS hand, laughing and smiling, clearly having recovered from her ordeal.
  • Meaningful Name :
    • Deconstructed when you have a pedophilic social worker named Josh Freely who freely abuses his power over single mothers and their daughters.
    • Not surprising that woman named Sherry Fox turns out to be a con-artist.
  • Medley Exit: Done in each episode when the full story comes out and the perp is identified, showing where are they now after the case is solved.
  • Men Act, Women Are: The wife in "Joseph" is a drug rehab counselor who molests one of her students and when he kills a witness, she threatens the person who is going to testify against him. Yet it turns out it's the husband who is the killer. To make matters worse, the wife is shown not to be the least bit grateful as she still keeps the affair behind her husband's back afterwards.
  • Mercy Kill:
    • In "The Letter", where a man suffocates his lover while she was being gang-raped by his drunken friends.
    • "Boy Crazy". A teen kills his friend after her mind is destroyed during electroshock therapy.
    • "The Good Death" features an Angel of Death-type serial killer, who puts several patients not scheduled to die out of their misery. Ironically, he isn't the "killer", the victim's wife was.
  • Middle School Is Miserable: Played for drama in the episode "Sleepover", in which a toxic environment of bullying and domestic abuse at a sleepover leads to one poor girl being accidentally killed in the woods by her former friend in a misguided attempt to regain status with the class Alpha Bitch. As the culprit laments, at the time, she didn't realize that middle school would end eventually and the opinions of her classmates wouldn't matter anymore.
  • Miles Gloriosus: "Honor" has a downplayed example where Ken claims he was a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War, despite the fact he had a nervous breakdown before he even had a chance to go. Deconstructed when he borrows Carl's identity as a POW. The realistic outcome happens when Stillman not only finds out, but shames him for his lies.
  • A Million Is a Statistic: Discussed in "Wednesday's Women," where the fictional murder-of-the-week takes place in 1964 against the backdrop of the very real murders of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner by the Ku Klux Klan. In the present, one of the witnesses laments the fact that, while the three civil rights workers were deeply mourned because they were famous (and two of them were white), the news media of the day didn't even mention the fact that the place they were found was a mass grave containing dozens more victims of the Klan, among them, the witness' missing brother.
  • Mind Screw: "Into the Blue". The entire episode, apart from the very beginning and very end, and including all Lilly's efforts to solve the case therein, is a Dying Dream. Granted, the final montage shows that she turns out to be right in her dream-deductions.
  • Minor Crime Reveals Major Plot: A frequent device used to get evidence to reopen a case or even close it at last. Situations have included the following:
    • The victim's prized possession turning up in the hands of someone who would be very unlikely to have it unless they were involved.
    • Something "not quite right" being noticed in a suspect's finances.
    • The murder weapon, by sheer coincidence, being turned in or seized in an unrelated incident.
    • Most prominent in "Spiders": The arrest of four Neo-Nazis and the solving of the disappearance of a Latino woman is originally kicked off by investigating another victim's abusive father as a suspect after he is arrested for beating his stepdaughter into a coma.
  • Misaimed Fandom: An in-series instance of this in "Static" stymies the investigation for well over forty years. The victim, a radio DJ in the late '50s, is shot midway through playing a mysterious new song called "Scarlet Rose," whose writer and vocalist nobody has ever been able to track down in the ensuing decades. It's eventually written off as a dime-a-dozen hokey love ballad only notable for its connection to the case... until Vera notices a reference to a "tiny cheek," indicating that, for once, the word "baby" in a song from the '50s refers to a literal baby. From there, it's a straight shot to learning the victim was the writer, he had an estranged daughter, she is the vocalist, and his ex-wife is the killer.
  • Miscarriage of Justice: You could consider just about every episode as an example of this, considering how long someone has been able to get away with murder, even if they are finally caught at the end.
  • Misplaced Retribution::
    • The killer in "It Takes a Village". Horrifically abused while in a group home, he is now killing innocent boys who have the misfortune of reminding him of his tormentors, instead of, you know, those who actually bullied him, or those who let it happen.
    • Tanner in "Knuckle Up" kills a random stranger who happens to remind him of his father.
    • "Cops" is considered a blanket term with the homicide detectives always being blamed for missing persons or earlier detectives not doing their jobs.
    • "Sabotage":
      • The killer's brother is one of the people he blames for his daughter's death.
      • A lot of the people he targets are people just doing their jobs. He wants them to behave a certain way (which usually involves putting him or his interests first) and takes it as a personal insult when they don't.
    • In order to stop his daughter from running off, the killer in "Witness Protection" kills the boyfriend’s father.
  • Missing White Woman Syndrome:
    • Invoked in "8:03 AM", when the grandfather of a murdered black teen thinks the police are only reopening the case because a white girl was killed at the same time. He is actually wrong.
    • Several (innocent) suspects admit that they fled from or refused to cooperate with the police because they knew they would be the prime suspect, simply for having been a black man in the mere vicinity of the dead white victim. One in particular, in "True Calling", is completely aware of who the murderer is—he saw the whole thing happen—but never says anything because he knows no one will believe him due to his race, class, and background.
    • "It Takes a Village". Race is never mentioned, but it's obvious that the grieving relatives of the victims suspect that the cops would have paid more attention to the cases had they not been black boys from a poor section of Philadelphia.
    • It's a plot point in "Discretion" where the prime suspect in the murder of a pretty white college student is a dimwitted Barrio kid. Not only do many people believe he was framed, but the prosecutor and arresting officer, both Latino themselves, are seen as traitors by the community. The kid actually is framed, but not for that reason.
    • Averted in "A Dollar, A Dream". The victim, an attractive white woman, went missing for over seven years until her body was found. Judging by the comments of the main cast, the case appears not to have been particularly noteworthy at the time. Played straight in that the victim was homeless, and the trope most frequently applies to the upper-middle class (or higher).
  • "Mister Sandman" Sequence: The flashbacks will often feature a nearly perfect representation of the era in question—hair, clothes, fads, music, social issues—the whole works.
  • Mistaken for Gay: The girl murdered in 1919 is originally thought to be a lesbian after a letter from her maid talking about their "shared passion" is read. The actual subject is them being suffragettes.
  • Moment Killer: In "Static," a DJ is shot while broadcasting. His blood splatters on the record he was spinning at the time and causes it to get stuck, much to the irritation of a young couple making out to the radio broadcast.
  • Moon-Landing Hoax: One of the suspects in "One Small Step" believes that the moon landings were faked. The murder they are investigating occurred on the day of the first moon landing, and the events of that day may have fueled his later delusion.
  • Motive Rant: This is the main way to get convictions, since, in many of the cases, any physical evidence has degraded beyond use.
  • Morality Pet: The abandoned baby Vera finds and takes care of until child services comes to get him. He later applies to adopt the child.
  • Morally Ambiguous Doctorate: Jack Galton from "Mind Games"; in addition to being mentally ill himself, knowingly keeps a mentally ill man insane by denying him medication, and he plays on the guy's own schizophrenia to cover his tracks.
  • Moral Myopia:
    • The victim in "Lonely Hearts", in an effort to keep her con-artist boyfriend, gives him the idea of becoming a Blue Beard. While she is freaked out by the murders, she only seems to realize he is a bad guy when she thought she had outlived her usefulness.
    • The first suspect in "The Red and the Blue" doesn’t mind the fact that she was her husband's mistress when they were dating, but shoots him when she finds out he's cheating on her after they get married. Made worse by the fact that she hints that she's cheating on him as well.
    • The victim in "Blackout" has the gall to call her ex-husband a pedophile for cheating on her with a younger woman when she had been molesting her son for years and is killed for attempting to molest her grandson.
    • The serial killer in "Sabotage" would rather kill his young niece than destroy the place his father built.
    • The wife in "Witness Protection" yelling at her husband about relocating, then having an affair with the agent assigned to them.
  • Mr. Fanservice: Anton the hunky orderly in "Committed". It doesn't end well for him; he's blackmailed into murdering someone with a threat of being framed for attempted rape, when in reality the women are very, very happy to partake in his hotness.
  • Mrs. Robinson:
    • Played for horror in "Blackout". Being seduced by a hot older woman isn't nearly as sexy when you're only thirteen and related to her.
    • In "Joseph", the older woman's lusting after her teenage client is seen for what it is—the actions of a deeply disturbed person. As if her behavior weren't sick enough, it's implied that she's attracted to the boy because he reminds her of her late son. Making you wonder just what the hell she did to HIM. This is almost certainly a deliberate reference to the Trope Namer, as the character is actually named "Mrs. Robinson."
  • Ms. Fanservice:
  • Musical Episode: "Creatures of the Night", "Triple Threat" and "Wilkommen" showed off the guest actors' singing.
  • Musical Nod: "Get Together" by the Youngbloods is the ending song for first season episode "Volunteers"; the song shows up again in the final season episode "Free Love". Both cases occur in the year 1969.
  • My God, What Have I Done?:
    • The more sympathetic killers show this after they've committed the murder, ranging from horrified looks on their faces to tearfully apologizing to the dead/dying victim (such as in "The Red and the Blue" and "Read Between The Lines").
    • Jeffries in "Death Penalty: Final Appeal", when he realizes the convicted man isn't lying...after the titular death penalty has been carried out.
    • This is a common interpretation to even some of the victims, particularly the less-sympathetic ones: the victims in "Maternal Instincts" (ashamed that she kidnapped a baby before she was murdered), "Blackout" (her pedophilia leading to her death) and "Greed" (the killer, a corrupt, manipulative executive, sheepishly thanking Lilly for solving his murder.)
    • While not the killer in "Roller Girl", the victim's friend Julie suffers this when she learns that refusing to allow the victim to stay the night at her place in part led to her getting killed.
  • My Greatest Second Chance: "Forensics" uses this trope in an appropriately twisted fashion fit for a murder mystery. The victim is a high school debate prodigy who is seen as this by his teacher, who had himself been an apt debater in high school before, so he tells it, his partner made an embarrassing mistake that cost him the national title. It's eventually discovered that he got the team disqualified by going apeshit on his opponent and is in denial about it, and what's more murders his student for deciding to quit the team.
  • My Sister Is Off-Limits!: Lilly isn't exactly thrilled to learn that Scotty has been seeing her sister and it leads to them being cold to one another for a couple of episodes. She eventually opens up and explains that her disapproval is as much for Scotty's emotional well-being as her sister's; he's still trying to move on from his previous love's suicide and Lilly's addict sister has a multitude of issues that wouldn't be conducive to a healthy relationship.
  • Nazi Grandpa: "The Hen House" has a Nazi distant uncle, or rather a Nazi who assumes said relative's identity after killing him.
  • Never Found the Body:
    • Subverted in "Blood on the Tracks" and "Joseph", where bodies are found, but their mangled state thanks to the method of killing (explosion in the first case, shotgun blast to the face in the second) led to them being misidentified.
    • "Fireflies". The victim never actually dies, she is kidnapped and loses her memory of who she is.
  • Never My Fault:
    • The mother in "Revenge" blames her husband for years about their son's kidnapping; yet, he was only kidnapped because she told her brother-in-law about their money when she wasn’t supposed to.
    • Josh in "Wishing" had just been brought in after the police find out he viciously beat his only friend, taunted him about his mother's death, and threatened his life. The first words out of his mouth are that they’re trying to blame "the weird guy" again.
    • The teacher in "8:03 AM" says one of the victims couldn’t cut the academic life. However, her flashback shows her insulting and belittling him in front of the other students, forcing him to read far above his level out loud while openly stating that he will never become anything but a dealer.
    • The eldest daughter in "A Dollar, A Dream" leaves her younger sister in the car alone, only for it to get towed while she is away. When they finally find the little girl, the first words out of the older one's mouth involve yelling at her mom about how the mom's irresponsibility nearly got the little girl killed.
  • Never Suicide: Averted; while most of the deaths initially classified as suicide turn out to be murder, there are a few cases thought to be murder that turn out to be suicide, i.e. "Two Weddings", "Daniela", "Best Friends".
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero: Happens relatively often. One example is Matthew Ridgely from "Debut". After the victim (the daughter of his childhood friend and family housekeeper) tries to withdraw from the debutante ball due to the unavailability of her father (whom she was supposed to bow in front of), he offers to stand in for Emma's dad. This was a kind gesture without any ulterior motives, but if he hadn't done so, then Emma wouldn't have gone to the ball and been killed there. The detectives also wonder if it might have caused Matthew's daughter to murder her out of jealousy, although this turns out to be just another Red Herring.
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed:
  • In "One Fall", the two chief suspects are totally not Vince McMahon and Ric Flair. Possibly a Take That! since WWE exists in the Cold Case universe.
  • "Soul" is clearly based off of Marvin Gaye; a young and gifted Black musician with substance abuse issues clashing with both a powerful and egotistical record producer and his strict reverend father who disapproves of his genre of music/lifestyle and who has a brother in the Vietnam War.
  • No Good Deed Goes Unpunished: A lot of the victims end up being killed just because they try to do the right thing and it ends up biting them in the butt. Not only does it get them killed but it also has a detrimental affect on their personal lives beforehand.
    • The victim in "Cargo" is killed for trying to save a girl from a smuggling/prostitution ring, going so far as attempting to raise her as his own daughter.
    • The security guard in "Rampage", who repays the two disturbed shooters for treating him with respect by hanging out with them in the camera room. They repay him by shooting him in the gut, leaving him a paraplegic.
    • If Rita from "The Sleepover" had just gone home and not tried to save the Alpha Bitch at the sleepover from her abusive parents, she wouldn't have been killed by her wannabe best friend, who did so hoping to impress said bitch.
    • The victim in "Blood on the Tracks" who wanted to confess to his role in the death of a friend. If only he hadn't been so vocal and insistent about this to several people who are just as adamant that he keep his mouth shut...
    • Missy, the victim of "Roller Girl" sees her loose-goose friend, Julie, drugged senseless and about to be taken advantage of by a sleazy skating rink manager. Instead of just turning a blind eye and going home, she helps Julie home. An embarrassed Julie repays her by breaking off their friendship and refusing to let Missy stay the night at her place and this ultimately leads to Missy's accidental death. Unlike the similar example in "The Sleepover", though, Julie at least has the decency to feel bad about it and make some serious life changes.
  • No Historical Figures Were Harmed: In "Beautiful Little Fool", the 1920s film star Carmela LaFleur is based on Mae West. Lt. Stillman even lampshades this when he describes Carmela as a "Mae West-type actress."
  • No Name Given:
    • The serial rapist from season seven, despite having what is essentially a multi-episode side arc in which he rapes Scotty's mother. Ultimately averted, his name is given in a later episode as Jimmy Mota.
    • John Smith's real name is never uncovered, since the guy was pretty much a ghost (always paid in cash, drove stolen cars, used fake licenses, had no fingerprints or DNA on file). As one of the team put it - "John Smith? More like John Doe."
  • Nostalgia Ain't Like It Used to Be: This show exposes the unseemly sides of every time period, showing there's no such thing as "the good old days".
  • Nostalgia Filter: Purposefully used in the opening scene of every episode. Each shows an idealized world where everyone is happy. The rest of the episode then subverts and deconstructs this trope as it reveals that the lives of the people in the opening scene were quickly thrown into upheaval or that they were all secretly miserable the whole time.
  • Nothing but Hits: Each episode almost exclusively uses chart-toppers from the year of the episode's case during the Flashbacks.
  • Nothing Is the Same Anymore: The Central Theme of the show is how the death of the victim changes the lives of everyone involved and how its consequences still reverberate through the years.
  • Not Proven:
    • The very reason George Marks is able to walk is because there isn't a shred of evidence that points to him. Anything that does can easily be explained away, and despite everyone's best efforts, he never confesses.
    • One episode ends with a prominent politician admitting to Valens, off the record, that he committed the murder years ago. Unfortunately, his sister, who is incestuously obsessed with him, has already confessed to everything, and there's no evidence to contradict her claims.
    • "Iced" has Cullen Masters, a disgraced hockey player who gets banned from playing after being arrested for the murder of a rival. The cops have nothing against Masters other than the fact he hated the victim but that was enough for them to try (and fail) to force a confession out of him. While he is released, the league is so sure of his guilt they won't allow him to play hockey again and, years later, this is held as a reason to ban his son from joining the league. The last part motivates Masters to investigate on his own and to ask the police to reopen the case.
  • No True Scotsman:
    • Jeffries grew up in the poorest part of Philadelphia and wanted to be a Gang Banger as a kid, until he was straightened out by his football coach and his first boss and became a cop instead. As such, a good way to piss him off is to suggest he "sold out" by doing so. In "Wunderkind", a slimy witness insinuating he's forgotten "his people" leads to Jeffries almost strangling the guy.
    • In "Fireflies", a suspect tries to curry Jeffries' favor by reminding him how bad black people had it in the '70s. Jeffries simply responds that he lived through the '50s and '60s.
  • Obfuscating Disability:
    • The killer in "Metamorphosis" pretends to suffer from cerebral gigantism and uses the fact that people expect him to be mentally retarded to conceal his true intelligence.
    • The killer in "Shuffle, Ball Change" fakes a career-ending knee injury in order to drop out of wrestling without disappointing his father. One of his crutches turns out to be the murder weapon.
  • Oblivious to Love: The victim in "Soul" thinks his killer is angry for abandoning her to start his own record label. She is actually in love with him.
  • Offing the Offspring: A few times, such as in "Forever Blue” and “Thrill Kill”
  • One Dialogue, Two Conversations: In "Stand Up and Holler", we have one of those rare examples where it's not Played for Laughs. A flashback shows two girls, Celeste and Rainey, who are ordered to kiss each other as part of a hazing initiation into the cheerleading squad. Celeste encourages Rainey in going ahead with it, since it would be "Stoopid" (slang term for cool). Rainey responds, "Exactly", in the sense she thinks it would be "stupid". Needless to say, the miscommunication prompts Celeste to go ahead with kissing her friend.
  • One Steve Limit: Averted. For example, one of the suspects the doer in "The Letter" is Nathan Jones, and the accomplice in "Metamorphosis" is Nathaniel Jones (incidentally, neither of them are pro wrestler Nathan Jones). There are also two characters named Rudy Tanner, though one never actually appears on-screen, and two victims named Rita.
  • The One That Got Away: Some cases have the victims being killed right when they are about to meet up with a love interest, with said love interest never finding out about their death and assuming they just abandoned them, only to find out the truth years later. These include "Revolution", "Shore Leave", and "Free Love".
  • One-Woman Wail: The cold opening cuts to a single female voice sliding into a high note which starts off the lyric-less theme song.
  • Only a Flesh Wound: Played all over the place in the episode "Stalker". The criminal is shot, with a sniper-rifle, through the shoulder, but seems relatively unaffected and is able to carry on until he is finally fatally wounded in the episode's climax. Meanwhile, he shoots Stillman in the shoulder and, despite concern that he's going into shock, he's merely patched up by EMS and is apparently well enough to sit in the hospital waiting room with the others as they wait for word on Lilly, who has also been shot in the shoulder, but is rushed to the hospital for treatment and nearly dies from her wounds, the only one of the three to have her injury taken seriously. Even then, her lingering trauma is emotional rather than physical.
  • Only Bad Guys Call Their Lawyers: Related to the Hollywood Law entry above—in several instances, a suspect's explicit request for a lawyer is blatantly ignored while the interrogation continues (although one puts his foot down and staunchly refuses to answer anymore questions until his attorney arrives). Another has Vera convinced that a suspect is guilty because the man refuses to talk with them or offer a DNA sample. Both of these are perfectly within his rights, yet Vera sees them as proof of guilt and justification for continuing to hound the man. The occasional snarky "Why, got something to hide?" can probably be written off as simple Perp Sweating, but there are times it goes much further than that.
  • Only Sane Man: The victim in "Family 8108". He knows that letting himself be goaded, consumed by rage and letting Honor Before Reason dictate his actions will only make a bad situation worse, and is just trying to make the best out of a bad situation in order to get out as soon as he can.
  • Outlaw Couple: The couple in "Lonely Hearts" team up to kill women for profit.
  • Pac-Man Fever: In "It Takes a Village", the central clue to catching the killer is an arcade game called Defector 3. They describe it as a 'Role Playing Game' despite the fact that the on-screen action is akin to the fighting game Mortal Kombat. Great job, guys.
  • Parental Abandonment: Lilly was raised (sorta) by her alcoholic mother alone. So was George Marks, then he was abandoned by his mother to be raped, starting him on his Start of Darkness.
  • Parental Incest: The victim in "Blackout" had seduced and molested her son for years, and is now starting in on her grandson when she is killed.
  • Parents as People: It bounces between played straight and subverted. Any episode that has a teenage suspect who turns out not to be the killer depicts them as believing that this doesn’t exist: the daughter in "Stalker" attempts suicide because both her parents are going through depression—the father because he has become recently unemployed and the mother for having to take on the load of being the primary breadwinner.
  • Parodies for Dummies: The episode "Andy in C Minor" has a book called "Sign Language for Dummies".
  • Parting Words Regret:
    • The father of the murder victim the detectives investigate in "Disco Inferno" confesses to this: When the victim decides to defy him on his choice for future life career path, the father says "I... renounce... you." before leaving, barely hours before the son dies.
    • The same thing happens in "Superstar": the father chastises the victim for wanting a life of her own outside of tennis.
    • Similarly in "Soul": the father of the victim slaps him after learning he is leaving home and tells him "They took the wrong son" (in reference to his brother's death). The victim storms off.
      Billy: You judge me. Your preaching is as empty as your soul.
    • Similarly, in "Forever Blue", the father of the victim renounces him for being gay. And then sends him to his death without meaning to. He's still haunted by that more than thirty years later.
    • In the episode "Shuffle, Ball Change", the victim and his brother get into a shoving match that results in the brother injuring his knee, possibly derailing his wrestling career. Their infuriated father tells the victim, "God help you, Maurice". The boy disappears soon afterwards, leaving the father thoroughly haunted by the thought that his son had run away from home thinking that his father hated him, and even more torn up when he learns that his son had in fact been murdered, and that either way, those are the last words that he said to him.
    • The last time the father sees his daughter in "Into the Blue" he leaves an award ceremony without honoring her.
    • In "The Key", the daughter of the victim says she hates her mother. The next day, she rejects her mother's attempt to patch up things between them. That's probably why, twenty-odd years later, she's the one still trying to find out who killed her mother.
  • Pass Fail: "Libertyville" and "Colors" both have characters who are half black and half white, but look completely white, struggling with whether they should accept their identity or bury it.
  • Papa Wolf:
    • Played with in "Cargo", as even though the girl isn’t his child, the victim sees her as family and does everything he can to save her, even selling his own home to buy her freedom.
    • The younger brother of the killer in "Sabotage". The police have to physically hold him back when he thinks his brother has killed his wife and daughter.
    • Both the killer and the victim in "Witness Protection". The killer comes to the victim's house looking for his teenage daughter, who is dating the victim's son; the victim doesn't want the killer around his son while he's so agitated, and refuses to let the killer talk to him for that reason.
  • Perp Walk:
    • Frequently played straight. Even the only episode where they can't break the killer ("Mind Hunters") has a perp walk... but with the perp walking as a free man.
    • Averted a few times.
      • In "A Perfect Day" the killer is already dead. Stillman has his picture taken down from the bar he frequented, though.
      • In the episode with the case from 1919, the perp, and everyone involved except the eight year old daughter of the maid, is long dead, so all they can do is write "CLOSED" on the case box.
  • Pet the Dog: Often occurs in the closing montage with characters who were Jerkasses or criminals but not pure evil.
    • "It's Raining Men" has a character who is a Depraved Homosexual who deliberately gives other men HIV in 1983, becomes a kindly pet shop owner by 2004, and who is literally seen playing with puppies in the ending montage.
    • In "Ravaged", the victim's sexually harassing Fat Bastard boss is revealed to have kept her dog after she died.
    • In "Daniela", the promiscuous and morally-bankrupt first suspect is seen finally turning down the advances of a prostitute.
    • The drug dealer in "Discretion" participates in a sting operation to help the cops bust the initial murderers; the main victim had been killed after discovering the man arrested for that crime had been framed.
    • The Jerkass teacher in "True Calling" proudly looking on at her old student, who, inspired by the victim, became a teacher in the school.
  • Phony Veteran: The victim's wife's boyfriend in "Honor", who pretended to be the victim while he was a POW. Fellow Vietnam vet Stillman gives a guy a Tranquil Fury Moment of Awesome by telling him "you lie about being a race car driver or a brain surgeon, but never a POW".
  • Playing the Victim Card: Played with, Tina Bream really is a victim. It’s just that she blames everyone from the police to her husband for her son’s kidnapping and death. It’s telling that when everyone found out that it was entirely her fault, her response to the cops calling her out when they find out that she was told who kidnapped her husband is that she doesn’t have a lot of reasons to trust the police.
    • Sandra Riley from the same episode uses being a Hot Guy, Ugly Wife ignoring her husband molesting her child as kidnapping other children to molest.
  • Politically Correct History: Averted. The episodes that flash back far enough don't shy away from the racism or sexism that was prominent at the time. Deliberate Values Dissonance is in full effect. Even the cases set in later years don't ignore how prevalent discrimination still is—in 2001/2004, a landlord blithely admits that she would never rent to a black tenant nor even allow black people in her building, while an innocent black murder suspect admits that he ran from the police because he knew he'd be the prime suspect simply for being a black man in the vicinity of a badly injured white woman and her dead child.
  • Politically Incorrect Villain:
    • The killers in "Glued", "Spiders", and "Family 8108" (though, for the latter, it's implied that at this point he's only clinging to it in order to live with the guilt of betraying his friend...)
    • Subverted with Jim Horn in "Wednesday's Women". He joins the Ku Klux Klan, but mostly just because everyone else is doing it and kills the victim, a white civil-rights activist, not out of racism but because she embarrassed him in front of his much-more-racist friends.
  • Popular Is Evil:
    • Played With with each Girl Posse member in “The Sleepover”. With them, nothing is clear cut. The violent Alpha Bitch with anger issues has a Freudian Excuse, the Beta Bitch has a reason for hating the victim and regrets it an hour later, and the Nice Girl ends up being the killer.
    • In “Stand Up and Holler”, Rainey Carlson and Celeste Church join the varsity cheerleading squad, only to find out how corrupt and cruel the other cheerleaders are. When Rainey tries to quit, she is accidentally poisoned by the head cheerleader in a brutal attack with tainted beer. Intoxicated and alone with Celeste, she tells her she is going to get the squad disbanded. Not wanting to lose the popularity she has gained with the squad, Celeste leaves Rainey on the football field to die.
  • Posthumous Character: With only a few exceptions, the victim of the week, whose death is established in the opening sequence, yet remains onscreen throughout the episode, fleshed out via flashbacks with the information provided by friends, family members, etc. Occasionally, some of those tertiary characters themselves fit this trope, depending on how long ago the murder took place (1919, 1929, etc.)
  • Precision F-Strike: Crosses over with N-Word Privileges in "Spiders." The show isn't shy about using mild swear language, but nothing too offensive. Which is why it's so jarring to hear the n-word dropped nonchalantly into conversation by a neo-Nazi white woman on a show that, at the time, aired on Sunday night at 9.
  • Prison Episode: "The House" takes place in a prison; it involves an escape attempt and the death of an inmate.
  • Professional Killer: Hector in "Sanctuary". He kills the victim too, but not because she is one of his targets; he just wants the drugs she is muling.
  • Prom Baby: "Family". The cheerleading captain gives birth to the popular kid's baby on prom night. She leaves her in a trash can and she's eventually put up for adoption. The dad is killed.
  • Pro Wrestling Episode: "One Fall", which got Dan Browned: The victim, a dock worker who moonlights as a wrestler until he gets shot in 1986, complains to the promoter about going through a table. This was NOT common in pro wrestling in 1986.note 
  • Psychopathic Manchild:
    • The killer from "Forensics" who turns out to be the victim's debate coach who had once been a debating prodigy until he lost his temper in the finals. He had turned his back on a promising legal career to teach debate and find someone to avenge his loss. He kills the victim when the latter decides to quit to take care of his suicidal father.
    • Since she was 12, Ariel from "The Sleepover" has spent her life trying to please the popular Alpha Bitch. Even to the point of killing her geeky former friend.
    • The killer from "Iced" who turns out to be the victim's best friend who drugged and raped the victim's girlfriend. He shows up at the ice rink to explain himself, stating "chicks like guys who step up and pull the trigger" and calling her a "sporty little slut". When the victim punches him down and insults him, he beats him to death with a hockey stick.
  • Psycho Psychologist: The killer in "Mind Games" is a respected psychiatrist who is secretly mentally ill himself and in denial about it. When he is diagnosed and prescribed medication by one of his subordinates, the hit to his ego is such that he not only kills her, but tricks her favorite patient into disposing of the evidence for him.
  • Punny Name: One of the suspects in "Daniela" is a man named John who frequently hires prostitutes.
  • Pull The Trigger Provocation: In the episode "Justice", Jimmy Bartram holds a gun to the rapist of his sister, and shoots when the latter brags that all his victims loved it.
  • Put on a Bus:
    • The mostly forgotten detectives Chris Lassing (Lilly's first partner) and Josie Sutton.
    • Saccardo goes through this twice.
    • There is Scotty's girlfriend Elisa, who was Put on a Bus to Hell: To an asylum after suffering a mental breakdown, despite Scotty promising her she wouldn't be interned. And then suffered a Bus Crash: By jumping off a bridge some time after she had been discharged. All this happened off-screen.
  • Put on a Prison Bus: An integral part of every single episode is the killer being arrested for their crimes and taken away. Trials are never shown, nor is it discussed what's going to happen to any of them in prison - presuming they make it that far. There are a couple of exceptions in the over 150 episodes, including "Mindhunters" (which ends with the killer walking free), "A Perfect Day" (where the killer was already dead so Stillman had to do a replacement by having his photograph taken down; and in "Torn", every single character except the maid's daughter has already died so there's nobody to arrest. Every other episode follows the pattern. There are also semi examples that play with the formula, like in "The Road" where the killer is arrested at the beginning of the episode, so it couldn't technically happen at the end of the episode, but it does end with the police taking him into custody.
  • Quip to Black: Frequently, and usually Lilly.
  • Railroad Tracks of Doom: "Wishing": The victim, a mentally challenged young man, makes a wish with his eyes closed while standing on some tracks and is run over by a train.
  • Rape and Revenge:
    • Played straight in "Rampage". Tina's rape in the mall leads to her encouraging the two killers to commit their massacre, which they do that very day.
    • Played with in at least four episodes:
      • "The Plan" has a pedophile teacher's victims find each other and decide to take revenge on him...only to back out when they've pushed him into the pool. It's actually the other teacher at the school, who has overheard the conversation and knows what he did, who lets him drown.
      • The appropriately named "Revenge" has a grieving father avenge the death of his son, as he believes the victim raped and murdered him. Played with, though, in that the molester actually didn't commit the murder, his abused son - who has no interest in revenge - did.
      • "Justice", which is essentially the Distaff Counterpart to "The Plan", has a date rapist's victims also find each other and threaten him with a gun. They just terrify him - it's actually one victim's brother who finds the gun afterwards and finishes the job.
      • "Blackout" is a similar variation. The detectives suspect it could be the sexually abused son who committed the murder, but it's actually his sister, who knew what her mother had done and finally lost it when she found out that her mother was planning to do the same to her grandson/the murderer's son.
  • Real Life Writes the Plot: One of the story arcs in season seven is the department suffering severe budget cuts, which coincides with CBS also doing budget cuts on the series. Possible Take That! involved in the fact that the guy forcing those cuts is a new Deputy Commissioner that Stillman despises.
  • Really 17 Years Old: One episode has a subplot involving a witness who's an Army recruit who lied about his age.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Often happens during the interrogation that leads to the perpetrator's confession and just before The Reveal of the actual murder scene.
    • Stillman gives a particularly vicious one in "Chinatown" to another cop who is discovered to be in bed with the Tongs, the Chinese mob. The guy is completely aware of who the local Tong boss is and could have arrested him at any time, which would have prevented the murders, but didn't because he felt there was no point, as someone else would just take over. Stillman... was not amused.
    • Victims usually give them to their killers before their death, such as in "Ravaged", "8:03 AM", and "Glory Days".
  • Recycled IN SPACE!: "Disco Inferno" is The Jazz Singer, in The '70s.
  • Recycled Premise: Though the majority of the premises are different, there are a few examples:
    • "Family" and "Almost Paradise" have strikingly similar endings because both involve a faculty member or teacher asking a favor from a student during a late 1980's high school senior party, both have the student refusing to comply, and both have the student killed by faculty member running him or her over with a automobile.
    • "Glory Days" and "Forensics" also end rather similarly, with a student being murdered by a teacher after confronting them with both their own wrongdoing and the fact that their glory days at school were in reality anything but.
    • The victims in both the "The Plan" and "Blackout" are killed in the same manner and for mostly the same reason: both get drowned in a swimming pool for being a pedophile.
    • "Static" and "November 22nd" are about money-broke men getting shot by a sentimentally-involved woman because they want to spend more time with their estranged daughters. Both episodes also have the victim temporarily persuading their killers to back down, only for them to kill them anyway.
    • "Daniela" and "Boy Crazy" both end with a boy coming too late to save the girl they love, and both involve a protagonist who is in some way gender-nonconforming — the victim in the former was MtF transgender, while the latter is a girl who preferred to dress like a boy and do "boy" things (the exact nature of that victim's gender-identity is never specified).
    • The victims of "Shuffle, Ball Change" and "Wunderkind" are both killed by their older brothers whom they tried to help chase their dreams.
    • "Fly Away" and "Baby Blues" are both about mothers who try to kill themselves and their child, and are only half-successful.
    • The victims of "A Time to Hate", "Colors", and "Stealing Home" are all baseball players who get killed with their own bats.
    • The victims of "Beautiful Little Fool" and "Street Money" are killed because they refuse to blackmail a public figure.
    • Both "Hubris" and "Triple Threat" deal with teacher-student romances.
    • Both "Family 8108" and "Bad Reputation" deal with fathers in a horrible situation who have sons that feel they are cowards for not making the situation worse than it had to be.
  • Redemption Equals Death: The reason the victims are killed in "Blood on the Tracks". They want to turn in their friend group (including themselves) to the police for an accidental murder they all committed ten years previously.
  • Red Herring:
    • In "Offender", one of the prime suspects is the Goth-like teenage boy who often bullied the victim and his friend. When the victim's bicycle, which he was riding when he went missing, is found buried in his backyard, his status as the killer seems certain. Only for his lame excuses—having stolen the bike from the boy in yet another bullying incident and buried it when he heard the boy was dead, knowing that police would naturally assume he was responsible—to be true and for him to be innocent. Ironically, he is still indirectly responsible—the boy is injured during the melee and hobbles off to his friend's house to get patched up—where he encounters his murderer.
    • The man who outright threatens to harm the victim's girlfriend in "Sandhogs" ultimately had nothing to do with the murder.
    • Remarkably averted in at least two episodes where the person presented as the prime suspect is in fact the killer.
    • Subverted in most other cases—all suspects are presented with motives and opportunities before the guilty one is determined. Rarely has it turned out that the most innocent-seeming person is in fact the murderer they've been looking for.
    • Everything up to and including the title of the episode in "Colors" wants you to think race was the motive. The killer is the only non-racist white character in the episode.
    • In cases that involve the team reopening a case because of newly-discovered evidence, it's not uncommon for said evidence to end up being completely irrelevant, serving the sole purpose of giving the detectives a reason to reexamine that particular case.
      • In "Debut", a woman asks the Cold Case squad to re-investigate her daughter's death (she fell down a flight of stairs) after finding out that a man who was present on the night of the murder had a wife who died in a fall down the stairs. It turns out that said suspect is in fact guilty, but his wife's death was a legitimate accident. It is complete coincidence she died the same way as the girl he killed.
      • In "Blank Generation", the team is asked to re-investigate the apparent suicide of a cult member after the man his family hired to "deprogram" him is found culpable in the death of another subject. The deprogrammer turns out to be completely innocent in the original victim's death, but the investigation up to that point is enough for the detectives to determine that the victim's death is by murder rather than suicide.
      • The two cases in "8:03 AM" turn out to be completely unrelated, although the investigation does reveal that the victims knew each other.
      • In "Who's Your Daddy?", the case is reopened after the victims' daughter, by sheer coincidence, finds a unique bracelet owned by her mother on an online auction site. The theft of the bracelet and the murder turn out to be completely unrelated.
      • Invoked in "Stand Up and Holler". A friend of the victim anonymously posts a (false) confession to having murdered her, complete with a drawing that matches an image that had been drawn on the victim's leg, because he wants to force the police to take another look. (He knows about the drawing because he is the one who drew it, during a conversation with her shortly before she was killed.)
  • Red Scare: "Red Glare"
  • Reformed, but Rejected:
    • The victim in "Bad Reputation", who is just trying to clean up his act and be a good father to his estranged son after getting out of jail. Played with due to the fact that he is specifically rejected because he had reformed.
    • The victim in "Lonely Hearts" is the former partner of a Serial Killer who tries to make things right after realizing she'd outlived her usefulness and is next on his list. She gets killed in the process.
  • Refuge in Audacity: It's implied that this is how the serial rapist from "Lovers' Lane" is able to stay under the radar for so long, as his methods are so outlandish that any victim who reports him runs the risk of having their accusation dismissed as a wild story or else being blamed themselves for getting into such a strange situation in the first place.
  • Relative Error: "Thick As Thieves". The detectives investigate the past of the victim Margot and her boyfriend Spencer, eventually discovering that Margot and Spencer are con artists and they aren't a couple, as an informant tells them:
    Boyfriend? Is that what you believe? No, Spencer wasn't Margot's boyfriend. He was her son.
  • Revisiting the Cold Case: The premise of the series.
  • Rhyming Title:
    • "Time to Crime"
    • "Thrill Kill"
  • Riddle for the Ages: We never find out whether Elisa, Scotty's childhood sweetheart, was murdered or committed suicide. Evidence is offered both ways, but nothing is stated for certain.
  • Right for the Wrong Reasons: In "The Hitchhiker," the team gets involved because one of their old cases is related to two similar cases from other states. By combining their resources and narrowing down suspects who don't have alibis for all three murders, they're able to quickly identify a suspect. Unfortunately, while he did kill the other two men, he's not responsible for the Philadelphia case, which means the FBI just got lucky that he didn't happen to be accounted for that day. If he'd been alibied for the murder he didn't commit, they would have ruled him out.
  • Ripped from the Headlines: A number of episodes are based on real life cases, and many others, while not referencing a specific case, do reference the hot-button social issues of the time — the AIDs crisis, the Vietnam War, Women's liberation, the dot-com bubble, The Space Race and so on. Has its own page.
  • Roaring Rampage of Revenge: "Offender". A man starts killing pedophiles and won't stop until the team solves his young son's 1987 rape and murder.

    S - Z 
  • Sadistic Choice:
    • In "Who's your Daddy", one of the two victims was given a choice between accepting visas from another family (and basically condemning them) and allowing himself and his family to be deported (the same as a death sentence).
    • "The Perfect Day", and how! In a fit of If I Can't Have You…, an abusive husband forces his wife to choose which of their twin daughters she'll save, and which one he'll throw off the bridge. You can guess what happens next.
  • Sassy Secretary: In "The Last Drive-In," Nancy describes her job as covering for slacker loan officers and making empty promises on their behalf. She pointedly says she and her friend Felicity are executive assistants rather than secretaries, before saying it's a nicer way of saying the same thing. When an angry customer harassing a frightened Felicity wants Nancy to put her on the phone, Nancy replies that she wants a better car and a boyfriend who looks like Robert Redford.
  • Saved by the Church Bell: One victim in "The Road" is saved from her abductor because the villain gets overconfident and tells the investigators that the woman is able to stay sane due to being able to hear nearby church bells, which she uses to count her days in captivity. Det. Rush's knowledge of the neighborhood in question allows her to determine where she is being held and rescue her.
  • Save Our Students: "True Calling". The victim is killed by another teacher who's basically a jaded, older version of her, when she tries to get him to confess to drug use to save the future of the student he forced to carry for him. The student in question feels so responsible for her death that he descends into the life of crime he would've had without her intervention, despite his obvious talent as a writer.
  • School Nurse: A suspect in season 3 opener "Family". She's a school nurse who talks kids out of getting their pregnancies "taken care of" because "murder is never easy."
  • "Scooby-Doo" Hoax: "Slipping" features an extremely cruel one performed on the victim by the killer, in an attempt to drive her to suicide. When this gambit fails, he does the deed himself.
  • Screw the Money, I Have Rules!: Screw the Political Power, I Have Rules!
    • This gets the victim in "Street Money" killed. He is an up-and-coming city council candidate who refuses to use blackmail against the powerful incumbent and thus probably sacrifices any chance of beating him. When one of his campaign staff, who views the victim as the last hope for the neighborhood, finds out, he shoots him.
    • This also leads to the victim’s murder in “Discretion”. He is a District Attorney who finds out the defendant in his first big case that he is supposed to prove guilty is actually innocent of the rape/murder. He wants to prove this, even though it could possibly jeopardize his own promising political career. The detective who forces The Fall Guy to confess tries to talk him out out it to preserve both their careers, and then kills him when he sticks to his guns.
  • Sealed Room in the Middle of Nowhere: MO of the serial killer from "The Road". He keeps his victims in a locked room in an otherwise empty house in a rural area well outside the city limits.
  • Secret-Keeper: Plenty of episodes have a character who's been keeping a secret of the victim's which is related to the case until being found by the investigators. Examples include French from "Runaway Bunny" who knows that Bunny is still alive, having helped her go into hiding, and Harry Kemp Jr. from ''Libertyville whom Julian confessed his mixed race heritage to, something that Harry only ever told his father and Julian's father-in-law about, with the old man taking it far less well than Harry does and urging him to not tell his sister or niece.
  • Selective Obliviousness: Sandra Riley ignores the fact that her husband is molesting her son as well as the fact that he kidnaps another boy to molest because she enjoyed Hot Guy, Ugly Wife.
  • Self-Made Orphan: Some of the killers are this, either because the parents are Abusive Parents or because the children have problems of their own. Season 7's "Dead Heat" is a good example of the latter.
  • Serial Killer: "Creatures of the Night", "It Takes a Village", "The Road", "Mind Hunters/The Woods" and "Last Drive-In/Bullet".
  • Series Continuity Error:
    • What Vera was in high school. "Lovers' Lane", one of the earliest episodes, says he was fat and unpopular. "Almost Paradise", one of the last episodes, says he was a football star and prom king (he even has a picture to prove it).
    • Jeffries' age seems to change Depending on the Writer, as well.
  • Serious Business: The killer in "That Woman" takes her high school chastity club so seriously that she never even sleeps with her husband, costing her her marriage.
  • "Shaggy Dog" Story:
    • "Yo Adrian", essentially. An elderly boxing referee on his deathbed confesses that he was paid to rig a match, which resulted in the death of a boxer, but dies before he can tell the detectives who paid him. It's ultimately revealed that the match was fixed in the victim's favor... and the victim himself fixed it back in the other direction in order to prove he could win without his opponent taking a dive. As it turns out, he couldn't, and he dies, so ultimately the investigation was entirely unnecessary.
    • Two other episodes ("Torn" and "Beautiful Little Fool") have the murder take place so long ago (1919 and 1929 respectively) that an investigation seems utterly pointless, since virtually everyone involved with the case is dead, so it's a safe bet the killer is too. The 1929 case might be at least partially Justified by the fact that they'd recently closed a 1932 case where the two key people (other than the victim, of course) are still alive ("Best Friends"), so they might have perceived a slim chance that the same would hold true for the 1929, but the 1919 one had to be a Foregone Conclusion.
  • Shell-Shocked Veteran: "Revolution", "Honor", "War at Home", "Family 8108", "The Brush Man", "The Good Soldier".
  • Shoot the Messenger:
    • The two successful kills in "Sabotage" are just unlucky enough to have been the ones to tell the bomber he can't get what he wants; neither of them is responsible for that decision, nor do they have the power to overrule it. The intended victims who had genuinely wronged the killer (at least in his opinion) both survive.
    • In "The Last Drive-In"/"Bullet" only the second victim had actually done something wrong; everyone else is either this or collateral damage.
  • Shrouded in Myth: The fate of the victim in "World's End" has become a local urban legend by the time the case is reopened.
  • Shut Up, Hannibal!: Occasionally occurs during interrogation scenes with the eventual perpetrator.
    • Most notably via Stillman in both "Fireflies" and "Forever Blue".
    • With Valens in "8:03 A.M." and "Slipping" (though he also does one on a child abductor who is not the main doer in "Revenge").
  • Signature Item Clue: In "8:03 AM", Miller's informant Toomey has a very distinctive dreamcatcher pendant. Over the course of the investigation, the detectives learn that the pendent originally belonged to one of the two victims, who had given it to the second victim as thanks for pulling her out of a dangerous situation. On learning this, Miller realises that the only way Toomey could have it was if he is involved in the murders.
  • Silly Rabbit, Idealism Is for Kids!: Numerous killers and accomplices express views similar to this, but special mention goes to Detective Bianchi in "Chinatown". Assigned to investigate Philly's chapter of the Chinese mob, he quickly discovers who the local boss is and could've arrested him at any time, but instead opts to help him, feeling that someone even worse would just take his place, and better the devil you know... Both victims would still be alive if Bianchi had just done his job, and the closing montage strongly implies he will finally testify, then still get the book thrown at him.
  • Skewed Priorities: Quite a few killers demonstrate these, particularly in the episodes about sports. Victims have been killed for the terrible crime of wanting to leave a sports team to provide for their pregnant girlfriend ("The Lost Soul of Herman Lester"), save their family ("Stealing Home", "Forensics"), marry the love of their life ("Colors"), or expose wrongdoing done by the coach ("Glory Days"). The victims will usually give a "sports isn't everything" speech to the killers, swiftly answered by a bullet between the eyes/bat upside the head/whatever.
  • Slap-Slap-Kiss: How we find out the cops from "Forever Blue" are gay.
  • Slut-Shaming:
    • "That Woman". The members of the school's "Abstinence-only" club can't comprehend the fact that the "slut" is actually a much better person than they are, and so murder her.
    • Abounds in "The Goodbye Room", in an institution driven by nuns for pregnant unwed girls in 1964.
    • The Asshole Victim of "Justice" is a Serial Rapist, and every girl he targeted suffered this. One started to think it was her own fault for bringing him to her room, even though she said no, while another had her best friend say she must have been asking for it since the victim was the Big Man on Campus who the friend thought "didn’t need to rape anyone." The youngest victim was eighteen, and even her own father blamed her because "nice girls don’t bring boys up to their rooms", making her Driven to Suicide.
  • Smug Snake:
    • Moe Kitchener, and most serial killers and rapists.
    • A particularly notable example is Linda Boyka, the Big Bad in "Cargo". At first, she seems to be quite the Magnificent Bitch, never losing her cool during her interrogation while freely admitting to her crimes because, according to her, it doesn't matter, as she calmly states that by the time the case is over, the team will have no evidence against her, she will go free, and The Dragon, who flipped on her, will be dead before he ever gets the chance to testify (even though he's already in prison). By the end of the episode, exactly none of this has happened, showing she really is just full of hot air.
    • The accountant in "Lotto Fever" who makes his living off of ripping off lotto winners:
      Kat Miller: Do you even... feel anything? Hosing a guy like that?
    • Leah’s father in "Wishing": while his anger is understandable, threatening to sue a cancer-ridden single mother is a Jerkass move.
  • The Smurfette Principle: In the early seasons, Lilly is not just the only female member of the Cold Case squad, but it is stated several times that she is the only female detective in Philadelphia. Or at least, the only female homicide detective in Philadelphia. Female detectives from other parts of Philadelphia are introduced after the second season and in later seasons, Kat joins the squad.
  • Snow Means Death, "Glued", "Ravaged", "Baby Blues", "Committed".
  • So Beautiful, It's a Curse: Anton, a studly orderly at the women's mental hospital in "Committed," is a rare male example. He is much-ogled by the patients, and the Big Bad uses that fact to his advantage to blackmail him into helping with the murder, threatening to press false charges against him for sexually abusing said patients. Note that Anton is black and the episode is set in the '50s, meaning he ran the serious risk of not just being arrested but lynched.
  • Sociopathic Soldier: The killer in "Revolution" murders his sister when she finds out he had committed war crimes in Vietnam and is going to leave him behind to go to Canada with her lover.
  • Soft Water:
    • Subverted in "A Perfect Day". The victim's skeleton is shown to have multiple fractures as a result of her being thrown off a bridge by her father. Well, besides the broken arm he had already given her.
    • Averted in "War at Home". The victim falls off a bridge into the water and never surfaces.
  • Someone to Remember Him By: "The Lost Soul of Herman Lester", "Soul", "Sandhogs" and "Shore Leave". Gender Flipped in "The Goodbye Room".
  • Sound-Only Death: Occurs only rarely, as in "Jackals", "Wishing" and "Libertyville". We see the aftermath with their bodies being discovered, but do not actually see their last moments alive (although the former was quite haunting, as we can still hear her loud, anguished screams as she's being stabbed.)
  • Spiritual Successor: To Without a Trace, which premiered a year before. Despite the two shows being at the polar opposites of criminal investigation—in WAT, there's tremendous urgency to find the presumably still-alive victim before he/she is killed, whereas in CC, the victim has been dead for years if not decades before the team takes on the case, they followed a very similar format, likely because they were both created by Jerry Bruckheimer and part of the CSI Verse—an opening sequence in which we meet the victim and get a hint of what led to their disappearance/death, victim disappears/is seen dead, the cops are brought in, we get numerous interviews with friends and family that lead to flashbacks (with virtually identical effects) that start to spell out what happened culminating in one that finally tells us everything, then the victim is found dead or alive/killer is found and we get a final montage of the cops and the victim's loved ones.
  • Spoiled Brat: The dumb babysitter in "Baby Blues" believes that her daddy can get her out of any problems.
  • Sports Dad:
    • In one episode, the father of a high school basketball player murders his son's main competition. He later cuts his son out of his life for quitting the game.
    • In "Superstar", the Victim of the Week's single father has been pushing her into playing tennis since she was 5 years old which consumes her life to the point of her wanting to quit in favor of attending college and having a regular life and results in the victim and her father clashing the night of her murder.
  • Stacy's Mom: Used in an extremely twisted fashion in "Blackout". The victim, a middle-aged former supermodel, actively tries to get this reaction out of others, including her own relatives.
  • Standard Cop Backstory: Lilly's father abandoned the family when she was young. She grew up on welfare with an alcoholic mother and an irresponsible younger sister. She has a history of failed romances and, outside of these failed romances, no personal life.
  • Star-Crossed Lovers: Naturally when the show regularly has a long dead victim who had a partner we run into this trope. "Best Friends", "A Time to Hate", "Boy Crazy", "Daniela" and "Andy in C Minor" are just a handful of examples.
  • Stepford Smiler:
    • Jakob in "Running Around". He talks about how he hates the Amish world and is happy in the English world, he's actually deeply screwed up, and wants to go back. Unfortunately, because he's addicted to drugs they refuse to let him back. He ultimately murders the victim because she refuses to help him go back (having decided to tough Rumspringa out in order to make a more informed choice), and because he resents her having a supporting family waiting at home.
    • "Torn": the murdered suffragette is accidentally killed by her mother after she asks "Are you happy?"
  • Stylistic Suck: "Creatures of the Night", where the lighting in the flashbacks is more intrusive than usual, and everyone is acting fairly hammy. This was done on purpose as an homage to the Camp nature of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which plays an important role in the episode's plot.
  • Stealth Pun: "Beautiful Little Fool" opens with the 1929 New Year party in a mansion. In the next scene, one of the attendants is dead. The Butler Did It.
  • Straw Misogynist: Played with in "The Long Blue Line" and "Into the Blue." While at first it seems to be played completely straight with none of the cadets liking the victim because she's a girl, it turns out that that is mostly a mentality held by the teachers. In an effort to prove that she was just as good, she unintentionally shuts herself off, accidentally coming off as a Smug Snake, something she is rectifying when she gets killed. Even then she is killed due to the fact that the other cadets were going to embrace her and not her killer.
  • Strictly Formula: (Like most CBS Procedurals...) Mundane scene in the past that introduces us to the victim, his or her loved ones and sometimes even a few hints as to why they'll be murdered. Then, said murder. Case reopened in the modern day due to discovery of new evidence. Interviews. Flashbacks. Case solved. Medley Exit. Where Are They Now. Somebody sees the victim's ghost.
  • The Suffragette: The oldest cold case that Lilly and her team handle is set in 1919, and involves the murder of Francis Stone, a suffragette who is in conflict with her family for joining the movement. She and her family maid, Phil, are inspired to join the movement after the former sees that the latter has a black eye courtesy of her husband who disapproves of her reading a pamphlet given by the suffragettes. However, her mother tries to appeal to Francis that giving women the right to vote will to lead to Prohibition being enacted which will shut down the family's brewing business. Despite being threatened to be disowned by her father, Francis sticks to her beliefs, leading to a heated argument with her mother who accidentally pushes her off the second story balcony, killing her.
  • Suicide by Cop: Played straight with George Marks, by Lilly.
  • Suicide Pact: In "Detention", three of the kids make one, but two of them back out. The victim gets killed while trying to keep the one who doesn't want to back out from killing himself.
  • Suspiciously Specific Denial: Oscar Anderson in "The Dealer" denies both killing the victim and stealing her bonus. Thing is, the detectives had only mentioned her money being stolen, not the source of that money.
  • Sympathetic Murderer: Basically any episode in which there was an example of:
    • Asshole Victim: "Blackout", "Justice", "Greed", "The Plan", etc.
      • An Asshole Victim that's not the main victim: "Revenge", "Offender", "A Perfect Day", etc.
      • Averted in "Maternal Instincts", which has an Asshole Victim... and an Even Bigger Asshole Killer.
    • Accidental Murder: "Kensington", "Late Returns", "Detention", etc.
    • A mercy killing, like in "The River", "The Good Death", "Boy Crazy", etc.
    • A crime of passion, committed in the heat of the moment and almost instantly regretted - "The Sleepover", "Colors", "Shuffle, Ball-Change", "Andy in C Minor", and others.
    • A plain tragic killer, such as in "The Promise", "The Good-Bye Room", "Cargo", etc.
  • Sympathy for the Devil: Subverted in the Grand Finale, "Shattered". The killer attempts to court this reaction from Jeffries; he'd committed the murder, which was more or less an accident, as a drug-addicted teenager and had legitimately become a much better person as he got older. Jeffries's response is to look him right in the eyes and coldly tell him the victim's mother suffered worse than he did.
  • Take That!: "The Last Drive-In" contains an arguable dig at Criminal Minds and possibly Mindhunters, which starred Kathryn Morris, in a scene where an FBI agent complains that the profilers always give her useless information like the killer's favorite underwear color.
  • Taking the Knife: How the victim in "Kensington" dies. One wonders why he bothered, since the guy he saved was a Too Dumb to Live Ungrateful Bastard.
  • Taking You with Me:
    • This exchange from "Knuckle Up". This is followed by the confession that implicated the one making the threat:
      "If you do this... you're going down."
      "Then you're coming with me."
    • Mitch Hathaway tries to do this with Cliff Burrell before his wife tells him to stand down.
    • In the pilot episode, "Look Again," the younger and weaker-willed of the two murderous brothers pulls this. The amoral older brother, who had been the direct killer, decides to throw the cops off his scent and gives a bare-bones statement implicating the younger, who is actually just a Guilt-Ridden Accomplice. When Lilly (who doesn't fully believe the older brother) goes to arrest the younger brother, he finally decides to stand up for himself and proceeds to give a much more detailed confession, including providing blood evidence and the location of the murder weapon, implicating both of them.
    • The ending of "One Fall" follows much the same formula, with the killer giving a weak testimony in an attempt to pawn the blame off on his accomplice, prompting the accomplice to give a more credible confession even knowing he'll go down, too.
  • Tap on the Head: Many of the victims die from being hit on the head (to the point that it's the most common way to die after gunshot wounds). Some of the many items used to kill someone included a hand weight ("The Long Blue Line/Into The Blue"), a wine bottle ("Soul"), a baseball bat ("A Time To Hate", "Colors" and "Stealing Home"), a rock ("The Good-Bye Room"), a hockey stick ("Iced"), a metronome ("Andy In C Minor") and a skateboard ("Hoodrats").
  • Taps: The episode "Shore Leave" is about a Marine in the 1950s who is murdered. "Taps" is played at the end.
  • Thanksgiving Episode: "Saving Patrick Bubley" shows the Bubleys having Thanksgiving dinner in 1999 and 2003, as well as murders that follow each time.
  • That One Case:
    • Lilly Rush: "The Badlands", "Saving Patrick Bubley"
    • Scotty Valens: "Sanctuary", "Jurisprudence"
    • Nick Vera: "Our Boy is Back", "Triple Threat", "Flashover" he is suspended during the Medley Exit.
    • Will Jeffries: "Strange Fruit", "The Key", "Shattered"
    • John Stillman: "Glued", "Chinatown"
    • Kat Miller: "8:03 AM"
    • Other, non-main cast detectives: "Churchgoing People", "Spiders", "One Small Step", "The Last Drive-In"/"Bullet"
  • There Is No Kill Like Overkill:
    • "The Runner": three fatal gunshots to the heart.
    • "Offender": rape followed by murder.
    • "A Perfect Day": the victim falls several stories and drowns.
    • "Disco Inferno": main victim killed and burned along with everyone else in the disco .
  • Those Wacky Nazis: Both the originals ("The Hen House") and the imitators ("Spiders")
  • Throwing Off the Disability - The victim's brother in "Shuffle, Ball Change". Aided by the fact that he isn't really hurt in the first place, just looking for a convenient way to get out of a wrestling career he no longer thinks he can handle.
  • Timeshifted Actor: Used heavily due to the reliance on flashbacks to tell each case's story, with nifty juxtapositions and actor-switching in between, to demonstrate just how much (or little) each person questioned in the case has changed over the years.
  • Title Confusion:
    • Contrary to what many fans believe, the main characters are not a specialized team that works in cold cases only. They are average Homicide detectives that from time to time reopen old cases, and they often talk about recent cases they closed before they went cold (and are rarely shown through the series). If the cold case is recent enough, there is a chance you'll see one of the main characters themselves putting the box on the shelf in the prologue. Lilly, though, seems to have built an informal fame as "cold case investigator" over the years.
    • A lot of that confusion comes from the episode "Love Conquers Al" in which Det. Valens is introduced. He complains to Lilly about working in cold cases when he would rather be out solving live ones. Lilly then tells him that she chose it because everyone deserves justice, no matter how long it takes.
  • Together in Death:
    • "The Boy in the Box"' and his biological mother Sister Grace.
    • This is literally why the lesbian lovers in "Best Friends" opt to drive off the cliff, committing double suicide, rather than be separated. Unfortunately tragically subverted as one lived and the other died, though the survivor continued to mourn her lost love forever.
  • Too Dumb to Live:
    • Two examples from "Stalker":
      • The daughter: after literally being sent a stalker's shrine, she responds by saying how romantic it is. When you add to that the repeated threats the guy made on her and her family...
      • Her mother, for using her daughter’s picture in her profile and being the one who was actually writing to the stalker.
    • The two teenage boys in "Thrill Kill", who don’t realize that playing for the camera in a murder trial against three children is a bad idea. To make matters worse, after they reopen the case, the surviving one tries to invoke Never My Fault.
    • The pedophile in "Revenge" has a gun pointed at him by the father of a boy he kidnapped and sexually abused and feels that that is the right time to taunt the shooter, saying the boy was "The best piece of ass [he] ever had".
    • The victim in "Jackals" joins a dangerous biker gang because she's mad at her dad, despite everyone, including them, telling her it's a stupid idea.
    • One perp is arrested simply for being this, selling a gun to the person who tries to kill him, who just happens to be a 12-year-old-boy.
    • One in "Justice". One would think Mike would be smarter than to taunt the younger brother of his rape victim (who has a gun aimed point blank at him, by the way).
    • The victim in "That Woman" following her friend into the woods for a tryst despite discovering they all planned to kill her.
    • The victim in "The Promise" following her friend back into the house, despite the Jerkass frat boys still being in there and having suggested burning the house down in revenge for their humiliation.
    • A guy in "Ravaged" tries to rape a woman in front of her already snarling Rottweiler. And then he is surprised the dog attacked him.
    • A lot of victims, when not overcome by rage or concern, continuing to talk to their increasingly furious and/or hysterical would-be killer rather than backing off ("The Dealer", "Libertyville", etc).
  • Too Good for This Sinful Earth:
    • Rita in "The Sleepover" is a dorky unpopular kid who is murdered because of trying to comfort her many horrible and traumatized friends.
    • The teacher in "True Calling". She genuinely only wants to help her students, but falls afoul of a Jaded Washout co-worker.
    • We are supposed to believe that the brilliant, creative dancer is this in "World's End", but it's something of a Broken Aesop for the uncritically sympathetic way some of her more asshole-ish behavior is treated.
    • The girl in "The Goodbye Room" is forced to give up her baby...and then murdered by her tragic friend who isn't able to keep her own baby after going through hell to try to get the child back.
    • Rainey in "Stand Up and Holler" only tries to do the right thing, but is brutally murdered by her supposed friends because they want to stay cool.
  • Tragic AIDS Story: There's an episode where the detectives are re-investigating the murder of a gay man in the 1980s. The victim became an AIDS activist after his lover contracted HIV. Flashbacks show him receiving a lot of grief from many gay people who are not yet aware of the seriousness of the situation and think it is another ploy to destroy the subculture they have built. The present day investigation is complicated by the fact that many of the witnesses have died of AIDS in the meantime. The victim's lover actually survived the disease and went into remission. He is the one who comes to the Cold Case detectives asking for the case to be reopened.
  • The Tragic Rose:
    • Played very, very straight in "Daniela". The titular girl is given a rose corsage by her boyfriend as they prepare for prom. Then the boy's father arrives and the boy denies their relationship out of some combination of embarrassment and fear, and the corsage ends up in the trash along with her bloodied clothes after she kills herself.
    • Rose Collins, in the episode "Best Friends", who is still mourning her one true love 70 years later.
  • Transatlantic Equivalent (Waking the Dead and Cold Squad)
  • Trans Tribulations:
    • The victim in "Boy Crazy" is diagnosed with "gender identity disorder" (the older term for gender dysphoria, from when being trans was pathologized and considered synonymous with it), and winds up being murdered for presenting as a boy.
    • The earlier episode "Daniela" focuses on a trans woman in the 70s who is Driven to Suicide when her boyfriend's father forces them to break up.
  • Triumphant Reprise: A weird version: In Season 3's "Detention", the Ending Montage song is the Smashing Pumpkins' cover of "Landslide". In next season's "Fireflies", where the victim turns out to have survived, the Ending Montage song is the original version by Fleetwood Mac.
  • Troubled Teen: "Maternal Instincts" (S1E21) features the son of the murdered victim who, since then, has been getting in all sort of problems, and comes to police to say he saw his mother being murdered.
  • Tunnel King: Tommy Harkin in "The House", who knows about an old, undiscovered tunnel that his grandfather dug while a prisoner several decades earlier.
  • Twirl of Love: In the episode "The Road", when the victim is reunited with her fiance after she's found alive by Lilly, he greets her with one of these — set to the strains of OneRepublic's "Come Home". It's adorable.
  • Two Girls to a Team: Lilly and Kat.
  • Tyrant Takes the Helm: Season 6 introduces Patrick Doherty, a loathsome new Deputy Commissioner who's never worked an actual case in his life and rose to his position by kissing the asses of Philly's crookedest officials. He has a particular axe to grind with Stillman, who sent Doherty's druggie son to prison years before.
  • Ugly Guy, Hot Wife:
    • The victim's parents in "Revenge", played by Brent Sexton and Brigid Brannagh, respectively.
    • The victim and her cuckolded (but innocent) husband in "Maternal Instincts". She's so far out of his league that their pairing seems utterly incomprehensible. It doesn't help that he's an Extreme Doormat when it comes to her—instantly forgiving her for cheating on him, and helping her kidnap a baby to fulfill her dream of having a child. Not even her immediately abandoning him and running off with said child can make him muster up any real anger to her even years later. (Though one could argue she married him because she knew how much she could manipulate him.)
    • Paul and Claire Shepard in "The Last Drive-In"/"Bullet". He's an overweight, nerdy, infertile Serial Killer. She's a cute-as-a-button Luna Lovegood lookalike who seems about half his age and has no knowledge of his... extracurricular activities.
  • The Unfair Sex: In "The Key", the victim's husband is incensed that his wife is cheating on him, despite the fact that he's been cheating on her left and right for years. Interestingly enough, he is NOT the murderer.
  • The Unfavorite: Happens a lot.
    • Harry Kemp in "Libertyville" is a notable example, being sidelined in the company in favor of his brother in-law.
    • The victim in "Read Between the Lines" is murdered because she is this. She and her sister are foster kids, and their foster mother is much more attached to the sister (if understandably so—she initially tries to connect with both of them, but the victim, jaded by past experience, pushes her away). Then she figures out that her foster father is a pedophile because of the way he looks at her. When the foster mother finds out she's planning to leave and take her sister, she murders her.
    • The younger daughter, particularly in the present-day, from "Superstar". Even though the pushy Stage Dad was a Jerkass to his tennis-playing elder daughter during her lifetime, years later, he mourns her death and acts as if she were his only child. It isn't until Lilly calls him out on this that he finally gets his act together.
  • Ungrateful Bastard:
    • The victim's family in "Lotto Fever".
    • The killer in "A Perfect Day" perceives his wife as this, although it's pretty clear to everyone else that he's the one with the problem.
    • The Warrior program in "Glory Days", even though it's averted with the killer who tried to invoke this.
    • Ungrateful Bitch: Brandi from "The Sleepover" and Julie from "Roller Girl".
  • The Unreveal: In "Wilkommen", we never learn why Lilly hates musical theatre so much.
  • Unusual Euphemism: Using the word "critter" — a neutral word in the real world — for black people in place of, uh... more well-known slurs. This is particularly noticeable in the season four episode "Fireflies", where the word is thrown around with HBO-levels of frequency. Even stranger is the fact the the n-word seems to be the only slur the show won't use; "sp*c," "f*ggot," and "mud-people" have all been said on the show.
  • Upper-Class Twit: A couple of the suspects in "Blackout". One of them responds to learning of the Rwandan Genocide with "Isn't that where the gorillas are?"
  • Used to Be a Sweet Kid:
    • Patrick Bubley was scoring in the gifted range on school exams, but after his brothers are murdered, he becomes preoccupied with avenging them, and begins to slack off. By the time that Luther has been killed, Lilly discovers that Patrick is flunking out of high school. Once she reminds Patrick that his brothers wanted him to have a better life, Patrick is able to find a measure of peace, and he renews his commitment to his studies.
    • The killer of all people in "It Takes a Village" before he becomes a Tragic Monster.
  • Vehicular Sabotage: In "WASP", the murderer switches the fuel and coolant lines in the victim's plane.
  • Verbal Tic: Several side characters have demonstrated these, and it's often helpful to the case.
    • One of the executives at the company the victim is trying to expose in "Breaking News" says "When you drill it down" when summarizing things. The detectives ID him as the whistleblower who'd been speaking to the victim using this.
    • The college newspaper reporter in "Superstar" tends to call people "Sport." He's identified as the victim's stalker and ultimately killer using this.
    • The victim's best friend in "Colors" says "Check!" when answering in the affirmative. He is the killer, but that's not what gives him away.
  • Victim of the Week: Each episode focuses on a certain unsolved case, often with the personality and situation of the victim explored in great detail.
  • Unusually Uninteresting Sight: Not once during the episode "Knuckle Up" does anyone mention all of the bruises and cuts a number of students have. This is a Berserk Button for the students who fight like that specifically to get attention.
  • Unwitting Instigator of Doom:
    • A particularly heartbreaking one in "Wishing" gives us a girl who has a crush on the Victim of the Week, a mentally-challenged teenager. One day alone in class, she tries to kiss him, and when her meathead boyfriend walks in, she lies and said he tried to sexually assault her so that she wouldn't get a "bad reputation". This causes the boy to be beaten up by said boyfriend and his gang of thugs (as well as his only friend, who is embarrassed by him) and her parents to file charges against him. Because of his alleged sexual deviance, he ends up institutionalized in the worst tier of the facility where the care for the patients is horrifyingly neglectful. In addition, the boy's loving mother (and one of only two people at this point who gives a damn about him) is dying of cancer as all of this is occurring, the boy's father won't take care of him because of his mental status and the boy's caregiver, who is also dating the mother, takes him from the institute and has him ran over by a train rather than let him live a life of loneliness and neglect. In present day, the the now-adult girl tears up in remorse upon realizing that she inadvertently caused the death of an innocent and harmless boy because of a little white lie.
    • The teacher/priest in "That Woman". He has an affair with the killer and when the victim points out the hypocrisy, the killer (who is already unstable) blames the victim for what happened and kills her. When interviewed, he admits that he transferred largely out of guilt for causing the victim's death.
    • The Jerkass in "Pin-Up Girl" who asks the killer out to get close to the victim, even laughing in her face for not realizing that is what he's doing.
    • If the wife in "Revenge" hadn't told her brother-in-law about her husband's bearer bonds like she was told not to, her son would be alive today.
    • Roy Brigham Anthony’s aunt in "Creatures of the Night" is the one who gave him the idea that the voice in his head is God telling him what to do. Before that, he believes he is crazy and could have gotten help. This is one of the few instances when the instigator is perfectly aware of it.
    • Dr. Breslin in "It Takes a Village". Had he actually done something about the abuse going on at the foster home, for example the boys being made to stand naked for days on end, poor Malik might not have been tipped over the edge by having his finger cut off by the other boys and the victims would certainly still be alive. In the present day, he does show some regret, though it only took 21 years and four children dying for it to sink in that he failed.
    • By telling Jerry in "Yo, Adrian" that his fight is fixed, his girlfriend starts the process that leads to his death.
    • By threatening and yelling at him after he had an outburst at a debate, the victim's classmate in "Forensics" convinces the victim to quit debate, which his coach REALLY disapproves of.
  • Vigilante Execution: "Revenge", "Offender", "8 Years", "A Perfect Day", and "Justice". In the case of the latter two, the victims are so utterly horrible that the detectives actually let the killers walk.
  • Villainous Breakdown:
    • George Marks suffers this after Lilly resists being completely broken, confronts him about his past, and rips his god complex apart saying that all he is is a frightened little boy whose mommy never loved him. In the span of two minutes, George goes from Smug Snake / Manipulative Bastard to a lunatic who can only scream, "You shut up!" over and over again. After watching him walk away like a smug bastard in "Mind Hunters", watching George lose it feels strangely satisfying.
    • John Smith ("The Road") kind of has this too. He's rattled by the fact that his latest victim refuses to give up hope of rescue, leading him to make the mistake that gets him arrested, and he's infuriated that Lilly doesn't give up either and instead figures out where the victim is being held in time to save her from starving to death.
    • Jim Larkin ("Lover's Lane") starts out as a Smug Snake... until the team reveals they have DNA evidence, at which point he has a Freak Out and rants about how both the victim and his girlfriend should have died that night.
    • The killer in "Shore Leave" has a pretty epic one when the detectives inform him that the man he tried to wash out of the military by framing him for the theft of an officer's gun went on to become a Navy Cross-winning Marine.
      Hal Chaney: NEGATIVE!!!
  • Villain with Good Publicity: Half the killers in the show until they're caught, to the point of being a staple...the idea is that these people may have adjusted totally normally to life afterwards, but they still killed someone. A notable example is Ariel in "The Sleepover" who kills her "best friend", Rita, solely because Rita tries to comfort Ariel for losing the monstrous Brandi as a friend. She ends up as the most respected of the friend group after this, becoming a doctor.
  • Wardens Are Evil: Well, probably not all wardens, but the one in "The House" certainly is. Though as an expy of Samuel Norton, could he be anything else?
  • Was It Really Worth It?: Many of the victims get killed for reasons thought important at the time:
    • Perhaps the biggest example is in "Love Conquers Al", as even the killers acknowledge it wasn't. Big Bad Duumvirate Jane and Bennett kill Bennett's other woman, Paige, because he had cheated on Jane with her. Their relationship breaks down anyway, so it is literally All for Nothing.
    • Travis kills Emma in "Debut" because she makes one cruel comment to him after he laughs at a Jewish joke.
    • In "Thick as Thieves", the maid and the dead woman's son plot to shoot her, so they can collect the insurance money. After she survives, the son ends up staying behind anyway to take care of her.
    • The officers call out Sandra in "Revenge," who stays in a loveless marriage with a pedophile and lets him abuse their son, like this.
  • We Used to Be Friends:
    • The popular girls clique in "The Sleepover" hate each other as grownups. The victim has this with one of the girls in the clique; they were close friends until the one girl was invited into the clique, whereupon she stopped being friends with the victim so as not to risk her popularity by being associated with an "uncool" kid.
    • The footballers and the cheerleaders in "Stand Up And Holler" were this, though they're sort of forced back into it at the school reunion, but most of them have barely seen each other for years before then.
  • "Well Done, Son!" Guy:
    • The killer in "One Small Step".
    • The victim in "Shuffle, Ball Change" is one. Subverted in that he actually does get his father's approval, but is killed before he can learn this.
    • The son of the victim in "Dead Heat" is one. He finds out his father really loves him only after he finds out his father'd taken out a life insurance policy on him. Shame he'd already killed his old man by then.
  • Well-Intentioned Extremist: The killer in "WASP". She is a commanding officer in the first-ever brigade of female military pilots in the US. When the victim discovers another female pilot has been killed by a male pilot in a prank Gone Horribly Wrong, she threatens to report it to the brass which the CO knows, the '40s being what they were, will likely result in the women's pilot program being shut down, and so kills her to ensure her silence. Even as an old woman in the present, she's totally unrepentant, feeling that her actions were all in the name of giving women a chance in the military.
  • Wham Episode: The end of "Stalker", which has the killer go batshit and take several members of the team hostage, shooting and nearly killing both Lilly and John.
  • Wham Line:
  • What You Are in the Dark: It's ultimately what Rush and the detectives sweat out of the suspects (and the killer) after they've hidden it for so many years. Sometimes, it's how the victim's character shines the brightest (when they're not Asshole Victims). And sometimes, it's when you see the killer's weakness in character.
    • In "Sherry Darlin'", James is the one set up to smother his grandmother to death for her money. Instead, he fluffs her pillow and tries to leave her to sleep peacefully. Sherry, on the other hand...
      • Also in the same episode, James' half-brother is left alone with Sherry for a few minutes, before she starts flirting with him. Sherry offers that they run away together, but as it turns out, the brother has more integrity than she anticipated.
    • "Ghost of my Child", where a former drug addict named Priscilla Chapman is at a crossroads between staying clean for her baby and giving him up for adoption. Her ex-boyfriend offers her a fix, to mark the end of her drug hiatus. Ultimately, she declines and goes straight home.
    • "The Plan" has a non-villainous example of failing the Secret Test of Character. Instead of helping the pedophilic swimming coach out of the pool when he's drowning, he allows him to drown once they're alone.
  • "Where Are They Now?" Epilogue: The present-day situations of each person involved in the case are interposed with shots of what they were like when the case first happened.
  • Whole Plot Reference:
  • Wholesome Crossdresser: George Polk, a key witness in "A Time to Hate" and major Cool Old Guy.
  • Wide-Eyed Idealist: Many victims, such as the one from "The Good-Bye Room", sometimes going into Honor Before Reason territory. The clash of their optimism with cruel reality is often what ultimately gets them killed.
  • Woobie, Destroyer of Worlds:
    • The serial killer from "It Takes a Village." Surely someone who tortures, mutilates and murders young boys just because they are able to beat him at a video game couldn't possibly have any sympathetic qualities ,right? As it turns out, the game is symbolic of a room in a particularly awful foster home where he spent his childhood, during which he and five other boys were made to stand naked on a square for days at a time by his counselor. He attempts a Moment of Awesome by standing up to said counselor. Instead of joining in, the other boys gang up on him and cut his finger off. He targets boys who remind him of the ones that attacked him and at times seems to legitimately believe it's them, even though it's been over 20 years. By the time the detectives catch up to him, he's an incoherent mess who slips in and out of third person. He finally comes to his senses long enough to realize that his latest intended prey is just an innocent little boy who had nothing to do with what happened to him, so he lets him go. As awful as his crimes are, even the detectives can't help but feel a tinge of sympathy for him, or at least for the little boy he used to be.
    • The killer from "Sabotage".
    • The pedophile killer from "Offender" qualifies, given that he has been wrongfully incarcerated for killing his own child for 20 years, is freed largely on a technicality (prime evidence was contaminated) and his own wife abandons him. By the time he finally confronts the bastard who killed his child and framed him for the deed, he's completely lost it.
    • Phil, one of the robbers from "Dog Day Afternoons", qualifies as such. Despite his cold, almost murderous exterior, he actually has somewhat of a heart, and actually wants to get out of the robbery business for good, unlike his boss Julius Carver, and tries to warn Roween Ryan about Julius's lying nature as well as his having another accomplice that he seduced to helping him rob the bank. When she decides to set off the alarm so Julius will be caught, Phil also tries to stand up to Julius when he orders him to execute her, but unfortunately, he is verbally and emotionally broken by Julius' words, and thus ends up having to kill her anyway. At the end, despite his being the murderer, you actually have to pity him.
    • The Congressman in "Late Returns", if you can even call him a "destroyer" at all. As a teenager, he was taken advantage of by his controlling older sister, and ultimately kills his girlfriend essentially on a reflex when her touch causes him to have flashbacks to his sister abusing him.
    • The killer in "Revenge", that is, the pedophile's son. It helps that he doesn't physically kill the little boy his father has abducted, although he does tell him to swim an impossibly long distance. But the fact that he's solely motivated by his mistaken belief that his monstrous father actually loves him.
      • Also in "Revenge": the father who feels so blamed for his son's death that he shoots the pedophile whom, he believes, killed him. As the victim is a pedophile and murderer who [[spoiler:even abused his own son, it's hard to feel any sympathy for the victim over the killer.
    • Tina from "Rampage". She had been gang-raped in the back room of a mall by some Jerk Jocks, and lost her best friend immediately afterward due to a misunderstanding. She ends up walking up to two disturbed teenagers who work at the mall and tells them point-blank "Kill. Everyone." Which they do. Quite messily. And not just the jocks but literally everyone, including children. When she gets arrested at the end, it almost feels like the detectives are kicking the dog, especially as she didn't actually kill anyone.
    • Paul Shepard from "The Last Drive-In"/"Bullet" has a pretty rough life, too. His father lost his business due to a minor clerical error by his accountant's secretary, then lost most of his property due to being unable to keep up payments and ultimately Ate His Gun. Paul himself settles down with a fellow film geek and opens a video store, but then the home video market crashes and, at the same time, he discovers he can't have children, and finally snaps.
  • Who's on First?: A short version happens in "The Long Blue Line" when Bell asks Miller out to see a band called The Heartless Bastards:
    Miller: The who?
    Bell: I wish it was The Who, but the venue's a little small.
  • What the Hell, Hero?: Scotty gets one that lasts for the rest of season 4 and the 1st half of season 5, after he accidentally gives a vigilante murderer evidence needed to work out the identity of his son's murderer (said vigilante nearly throws the murderer off a building as a result).
  • Worthy Opponent: George Marks sees Lilly as this, and such as ensures that she is the one who kills him.
  • Would Hurt a Child: The victims in "Glued", "The Boy in the Box", "Baby Blues", "Thrill Kill", "The Sleepover" and "One Small Step" are all children (though for the last two the killers are also children).
  • Writers Cannot Do Math:
    • Jeffries is 12 in 1963, a grown adult in 1966, and turns sixty in 2005.
    • Stillman's daughter is said to be born in 1980, and then to be 18 about 20 years ago.
    • Don't even try to guess the age of the killer arrested in "World's End" for a crime he committed in 1938.
  • You Killed My Brother: Cedric Bubley does this, but changes his mind about killing.
    "You ruined our family."
    • His other brothers...
  • Writing Around Trademarks: Because of copyright restrictions, the Closed Captioning refers to songs used by genre, rather than by name.
  • Wrong Genre Savvy:
    • The ending of "Roller Girl" involves the victim and her best guy-friend, who has a crush on her, in a scene straight out of a romantic movie, so he kisses her on an impulse... and she's confused and revolted, and in the ensuing tussle falls to her death.
    • "Yo, Adrian", an in-universe parody of the movie Rocky, shows just what would happen if a man is mercilessly beaten on for 15 rounds (well, 14).
    • Ruby's lovesick boyfriend in "Saving Sammy" shoots her and Brent's parents in order to stop her from moving away. Naturally, she is angry and disgusted instead of being impressed or happy once she finds out he is the doer.
  • Yandere: Several killers are this, friends of the victim who fall for them and go crazy after they are rejected: "Superstar", "The Key", "Stalker", etc.
  • You Called Me "X"; It Must Be Serious: In "Knuckle Up", the victim and his friend address each other as "Buck" and "Ares" respectively. When one of them is about to run from a murder scene, they call each other by their first names before the friend runs away.

 
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Tense Reunion

Tiffany, Ariel and Brandi confront each other about Rita's murder

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