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Series / Forensic Files

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No Witnesses. No Leads. No Problem.
Forensic Files (also known as Medical Detectives, Mystery Detectives, Murder Detectives, and Cause of Death) is a crime documentary series that aired from 1996 to 2011. It was narrated for almost its entire run (channel hopping from TLC to Court TV/truTV to HLN) by Peter Thomas. As the title implies, the show focuses on forensic investigations, mostly into murders.

On October 1, 2019, a revival of the show named Forensic Files II was announced, which premiered on February 23, 2020.

Forensic Files includes examples of:

  • Abhorrent Admirer: "Flower Power" and "Catch-22" both involve women being pursued by men they're not interested in and eventually being murdered after rejecting the men's advances one too many times.
  • An Aesop: Don't commit crimes — no matter how well you think you've covered your tracks, you will leave something behind that will allow them to find you.
  • All for Nothing:
    • The killer in "Yes, In Deed" murdered his victim so he wouldn't have to pay her $25,000 for her house (He had already paid off her mortgages, and just needed to give her the $25,000 dollars to complete the sale). He ends up having to pay it anyway when her surviving relatives sue him for it.
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    • "Cold-Hearted" involves a woman murdering her second husband for insurance money. After his death, it turns out that he allowed the policy to lapse.
    • "Corner Pocket" involves a pair of criminals killing an insurance agent to get his safe. They can't get the safe open, so they steal his wallet, which contains just 300 dollars-which they quickly gamble away.
    • One episode had a man killing his daughter so that he could get back his girlfriend (the two didn't get along). Needless to say, the woman didn't want anything to do with a man who would murder his own child and even if she had, he's in prison for the rest of his life, keeping them apart anyway.
    • "Nailed" has a man kill a woman he raped so she couldn't testify against him. Not only did he end up still getting convicted of the rape, but he got a very lenient sentence of 4 years and was even able to return to his respectable job as an accountant after it was over. He ends up convicted for the murder and is serving the rest of his life behind bars.
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  • Always Murder: Averted. Aside from featuring a handful of non-murder cases, a few other supposed murders have genuinely turned out to be accidents, suicides, natural causes, or self-defense. One case ("Grave Danger") actually features a grave robbery.
  • Aluminum Christmas Trees: In "All That Glitters is Gold", the AK-47 rifle used by the killer is reported as using 5.56 mm NATO rounds. This may seem like a research error at first, but there are AK variants chambered for 5.56 mm NATO.
  • Ambiguous Situation: A handful of times, the police have arrested one person, but been forced to let their presumed partner-in-crime walk free as there isn't enough evidence to say they were involved, despite their strong (and likely correct) suspicions.
  • Anachronism Stew: The case of the episode "Memories" took place in 1979-1980 (although was not solved for nearly twenty years) and when the victim had her previously lost memory jogged by some pictures in a baby magazine. The pictures she were looking at, on closer inspection, were of actress Kelly Preston and her daughter Ella Blue, who was born in 2000.
  • Arson, Murder, and Jaywalking: One criminal is convicted of first degree attempted murder, theft, and sales tax violations.
  • Battleaxe Nurse: The killer in "Nursery Crimes" is a nurse who deliberately induces medical crises in her patients so that she can come to their rescue and be recognized as a savior. Unfortunately, many of the patients she sickens don't survive.
  • Bittersweet Ending: By virtue of this being a crime show, most if not all the stories end on a bittersweet note, even if nobody actually died.
  • Bizarre and Improbable Ballistics: "The Magic Bullet" details an investigation into an incident where a teenager was shot in the head while sitting in the safety zone building at a shooting range. The episode reveals the unlikely chain of events which led to this tragic accident:
    Outside on the firing range behind the airgun building, Dan Smith, one of the last competitors of the day, steps up to the 15 yard line. This moves him in front of two sets of safety baffles. Using a modified gun, Smith takes aim and squeezes the trigger. In a fraction of a second, another shot is fired during the recoil phase of the original shot. It happens so quickly, the shooter doesn't know it left the gun. The bullet misses the target, high and to the left. Traveling upwards, it passes underneath the last set of protective baffles, and just three inches over the [protective] berm. It's speeding at 1,200 feet per second. The bullet blasts through the aluminum siding, goes through a storage room, misses a broom and some pipes by less than an inch and then breaks through a second wall, entering the airgun range. Then the bullet does something unbelievable. It strikes an ordinary ceiling tile and ... skids along the tile for seven inches before mysteriously changing direction, making a 10-degree turn, and begins a downward path. It slows to about 900 feet per second, penetrates a plaster wall, and enters Trey Cooley's head.
  • Black Widow: The show profiles women who have murdered multiple spouses.
  • *Bleep*-dammit!: In "Grave Danger", when Clay Daniels's mother-in-law calls him an asshole, the "hole" part is bleeped out while "ass" is left uncensored.
  • The Bluebeard: The show profiles men who have murdered multiple spouses.
  • Bluff the Impostor: In "If I Were You", a woman grew concerned when she couldn't reach her father, despite the fact that he kept sending cards for special occasions. So she left a message for him reminding him of her husband's birthday and the money he'd promised. When she promptly received a card with a check, she knew for certain that something was wrong as it was not her husband's birthday, nor had he promised any money. It was soon found that her father had been murdered and his killer was continuing to pay his bills and send correspondence to create the illusion that he was alive.
  • Call-Back:
    • "Dressed to Kill" contains one for the episode "Beaten by a Hair". It shows the key evidence Hadden Clark left behind that led to the conviction of the first murder that he committed.
    • "The Music Case" had a little girl in Minnesota murdered in her home and authorities initially believed that the murderer from "Tooth or Consequences" killed her as well. Turns out, someone else committed the crime.
    • In a more roundabout example, "Dinner and a Movie" has the murderer uses the real life movie Blackout as an inspiration for covering up his wife's time of death. Blackout was loosely based on the John List murders, which the show had previously covered in "The List Murders," though the show doesn't acknowledge this.
    • In "A Squire's Riches", Ari Squire was working on his car when it fell on him, which killed him. When the car fell on him, the vibration caused a light to smash on the ground that started an electrical fire. The lead investigator was about to rule it an accident, even though the fire seemed weird as the power was off, until he watched an episode of Forensic Files. The episode in question, "Past Lives", was about a guy who faked his death by a car fire using a dead body. This caused the investigator to take a second look at the victim. It turned out that the victim was actually Justin Newman, a recently missing person who Squire used to faked his death.
  • Car Fu:
    • "Treading Not So Lightly" has a pretty disturbing variant: a woman had to bring her toddler daughter to work, but since her boss refused to allow the girl to stay in the building, he ordered her to go play in the parking lot, where she was then ran over by a car and suffered severe brain and facial damage.note  Even though the girl was able to recover enough to be interviewed for the episode years later, albeit with permanent disfigurements, she died in her sleep of an aneurysm in 2011.
    • In "All That Glitters is Gold", the killer initially tries to get his victim to pull over by ramming her car with his truck. When that doesn't work, he pulls out a rifle and starts shooting.
  • Cassandra Truth: Occasionally, some of the most outlandish, ridiculous, or improbable stories told by suspects turn out to be true:
    • One episode featuring a woman's murder had the cops arresting a man after his gun matched the ballistics at the scene, his shoe prints matched those found at the scene, and blood from the victim was found on the shoes in his closet. The man insisted that someone must have stolen the items and then returned them after the murder. The police laughed in his face until they discovered that his DNA wasn't a match and his alibi was verified by numerous people. It turned out that a friend of his, who was staying with him at the time, did everything as he described.
    • "Stranger in the Night" involves a man who's accused of murdering his mother. He denied it. He then told an improbable story about how he was attacked by a hitchhiker, and when he went home later that night, he saw the same hitchhiker, which caused him to leave. It ultimately turned out to be true, as the hitchhiker killed the man's mother while he was high on drugs. The hitchhiker also revealed that everything that transpired that night was one big coincidence.
  • Chocolate Baby: In "Hell's Kitchen", when looking at a photo of the victim's family, a detective notes that the older son doesn't look like his parents. Sure enough, it's confirmed that the victim had an affair with another man early in her marriage.
  • Clear My Name: A few episodes center around someone wrongfully convicted of a crime attempting to find out the actual culprit or circumstance to prove their innocence.
  • Content Warnings: invoked When the series still aired on Court TV, several of the more gruesome/horrifying episodes ("Root of All Evil", "Where the Blood Drops", "Pure Evil", "Treads and Threads", etc.) had a warning before it aired. These have been removed from almost all of the HLN airings.
  • Conviction by Counterfactual Clue:
    • In the episode "Yes, in Deed", the prime suspect saving a movie ticket stub to establish an alibi was one of the reasons the police, and one of the prosecutors, believed that he was the culprit of a murder and arson. One of the detectives interviewed remarks that nobody ever keeps their movie stubs.note 
    • In the episode "Naughty or Nyce", a woman is found dead in a van, and detectives feel the crime scene was staged. Why? Because the woman's shoes did not match the outfit she was wearing, claiming women always wear shoes that match their dresses or suits.
    • Another episode had a man perfectly describing what his daughter had been wearing when she disappeared, right down to her purple socks. Detectives found it odd that he could be so detailed. When the child's body was eventually found, wearing the exact same clothes he had described, they realized that he had killed her as she slept, then dressed her before taking her away to bury her.note 
    • One episode has the detectives realizing that a killer disguised himself as his female victim so as to confuse them and witnesses—her body was found in the woods, but numerous neighbors reported seeing her leave for work. The "a-HA!" moment for the cops was that the "girl" had been wearing slacks, because according to one of them, the victim, having been very tall, never wore pants. "Tall girls don't wear pants!"
  • Cool Old Guy: Narrator Peter Thomas, who was 72 when the show began and who lived to be in his early 90s.
  • Couldn't Find a Pen: In "Writing on the Wall", a murdered woman writes the name of her ex-boyfriend on the wall in her own blood. One reporter even comments that it's something you'd expect in a movie rather than real life. And sure enough, it turned out to be a Red Herring. Not only was the victim paralyzed from the waist down due to her wounds, but the blood seemed to be on her right finger, but she was exclusively left-handed. Not only that, the message in blood was written over the dried blood from the attack. The actual killer was her last boyfriend, who she recently broke up with, and he wrote the name in an attempt to frame her ex.
  • Crossover:
    • "The List Murders" showed how America's Most Wanted was able to accurately provide an aged-up mold image of John List after nearly two decades that was able to lead to his identification and arrest. John Walsh even appears as one of the people being interviewed.
    • Multiple episodes ("Stick 'em Up" about the murder of Dan Short, "Horse Play" about the murder of Shannon Mohr) serve as sequels to episodes of Unsolved Mysteries, telling the rest of the story as and after the mystery was solved.
  • A Date with Rosie Palms: In "Home Evasion", it's mentioned that the killer used a sex toy while in his victim's home.
  • Dating Service Disaster: "Fate Date" focuses on a woman meeting her online boyfriend, who ended up murdering her, her amicable ex-husband, who she was living with until the divorce was final, and a Good Samaritan who was passing by and reported the fire the killer started to destroy evidence.
  • Dating What Daddy Hates:
    • Or Mommy, in the case of "Runaway Love". The victim had threatened to charge her daughter's 21-year-old boyfriend with statutory rape once she discovered he'd been having sex with her daughter, but relented with a signed consent form, only to go to the boyfriend's home when her daughter broke curfew. When the daughter and boyfriend are arrested, the boyfriend claims to have acted alone while the daughter claims to have been kidnapped after being rendered unconscious upon finding her boyfriend attacking her mother. The daughter's DNA is found on a sponge used to clean the scene and her fingerprints are found on the duct tape used on the box her mother's body was dumped in. The police arrest her during her sob story, and the boyfriend later admits that she was involved after his trial.
    • "Disrobed" concerns a 16-year-old girl who falls in love with a 19-year-old illegal immigrant. Her parents disapprove and threaten to report the boyfriend for statutory rape, so she shoots them both to death with a hunting rifle belonging to her parents' tenant.
  • A Deadly Affair: Frequently. And as in the trope description, everyone—cheating spouse, cuckolded spouse, lover—plays the role of victim or killer at some point.
  • Deadly Prank: In "All the World's a Stage", the victim's husband claims she tried to fake shooting herself in the head as a prank, but didn't realize the gun still had a bullet in the chamber. It falls apart when investigators see that the entrance wound was on the left side of the head when the victim was right-handed.
  • Deadpan Snarker: "Postal Mortem" brings us this gem. When the narrator asks how often it is for bombers to get blown up by their own bombs while handling them, the explosives expert calmly and straight-facedly answers: Not common enough.
  • Dead Person Impersonation: In "If I Were You", a local handyman murdered a man who had hired him, but continued to pay his bills and send correspondence to his daughter so as to give the impression that he was still alive.
  • Death by Irony:
    • In "Scratching the Surface", a man shoots at four men inside a car, killing one and injuring two. When they arrest him, a disgruntled coworker, he laments that he injured the guys he wanted to kill, while the man he was on good terms with is the one who actually died.
    • In "Without a Trace", a man tries to kill his ex-girlfriend by placing a chemical used in animal laboratories in her lemonade. Everyone in her family but her drank the lemonade and wound up dying.
    • In "The Cheater", one of Walter Scott's hit songs had the lyrics, "Look out for the cheater". His murder case involved just that; he divorced his first wife for another woman, who in turn caused another man to kill both his own first wife and Scott.
    • In "A Voice From Beyond", the victim's backstory has her leaving her husband in her native El Salvador because he was having an affair and had gotten his mistress pregnant. Upon moving to America, she ends up having an affair with her married boss, becoming pregnant and soon murdered due to his refusal to accept the pregnancy and her telling his wife about everything.
  • Deceased Fall-Guy Gambit:
    • At least two episodes have the killer murder two people and blame the death of the first victim on the second one.
    • Stacey Castor in "Freeze Framed" attempts to do this with her own daughter. Fortunately, the daughter survives and police catch on to the plan when they see several errors in the daughter's alleged suicide note.
  • Destroy the Evidence: Quite a few culprits attempt this. It often leads to a Revealing Cover-Up. In the case of "Fate Date", it failed due to the fire being reported quickly by a passerby, though said passerby sadly lost his life as a result.
  • Disconnected by Death: "Picture This" has the teenage victim speaking on the phone with her best friend when the call abruptly ended. After her body was found several days later, it eventually came out that her stepfather had struck her after finding her on the phone (which she was forbidden from doing since she was grounded), which knocked the girl out. Since a domestic charge would screw up his prestigious government position, he then strangled her and left her body in a park to make it look like it was a random attack.
  • Disguised in Drag:
    • "Beaten by a Hair" had detectives confused about the timeline of a victim's disappearance; her body was found in the woods and the trail sniffing dog had her go out the back door, but multiple witnesses swore that they saw her leaving for work though the front door. They eventually learned that her killer had planned the crime so far in advance that after killing her, he dressed in her clothes and donned a wig, thus enabling him to avoid detection and dupe her neighbors into thinking that they'd seen her.
    • "Order Up" and "A Killer Disguise" both involve female culprits who disguise themselves as men before committing their crimes.
  • Disposable Sex Worker: A few episodes are about the murder of prostitutes by their clients.
  • Disproportionate Retribution: There have been several instances where somebody was severely injured or killed for this reason. For example, in one episode, a truck driver brutally killed a woman because she refused to have sex with him. Another had a woman who hated her husband so much that she started a fire that killed two of their children.
  • Distant Finale:
    • A handful of stories go cold for a time before being revived due to new evidence or a confession. In "A Voice From Beyond", a woman's body is found stuffed in a barrel. It turns out that she had disappeared 30 years prior and hadn't even been reported missing at the time—she only had one friend in town who wasn't allowed to file a report on her behalf. Despite the length of time between her murder and the discovery of her remains, the case was solved in ten days once they tracked down her boss/lover, who promptly Ate His Gun after the cops spoke with him.
    • Many reruns of the older episodes include updates.
    • The ending of the episode "Photo Finish" (which aired in 2001) said that Kimberly Pandelios, another model found murdered a year prior to the primary victim, was still unsolved. Years later, however, her own murderer was caught and sentenced for her killing.
  • The Dog Bites Back: The 60 minute episode "Payback" (which also inspired the movie Bully) had, by all accounts, an Asshole Victim; a big, tough guy who bullied almost everyone around him, including his best friend from childhood. Eight people who had enough of his abuse, including the childhood friend, teamed up and killed him.
  • Downer Ending:
    • Season 1's "The Wilson Murder", which documents the murder of one Jack Wilson. His wife, Betty, was said to have hired a hitman to murder him, and she was convicted on very trivial circumstantial evidence. The episode ends with no real resolution as it's never determined if Betty really did try to have her husband murdered, or if she was set up. Either way, she's still serving a life sentence in prison.
    • "Scout's Honor". After the suspect, who was imprisoned for several years for the murder of Edna Posey, was cleared and released, the episode ended without anyone else being charged with her murder.note 
    • "Pastoral Care": It's never fully determined if prison guard Donna Payant was in fact murdered by inmate Lemuel Smith, or if she was killed by fellow officers for being a whistle blower. Smith proclaims his innocence on the matter, and Payant's sister too believes that she was killed by her colleagues. It's also never proven that the mark on her body was a bite mark, or a bruise left from while her body was crushed in the garbage truck.
  • Driven to Suicide: Some killers have committed suicide to avoid prison. Others are mention to have committed suicide on the show as well, including one victim whose death was blamed on her husband.
  • Drugs Are Bad: More than a few episodes cover cases where the killer committed their crime to obtain money to support their drug habit.
  • Early Installment Weirdness: Some of the early episodes included topics like "Legionnaires' Disease" and "Fatal Fungus". Medical mysteries wouldn't be a focus of the show later on, unless a crime such as intentional poisoning was involved. In addition, the dramatization footage was shot in black-and-white.
  • Everybody Lives: Very rare given the nature of the show, but it does happen in at least one episode that involves an attempted murder.
  • Extremely Short Time Span: "Death by a Salesman" — thanks to the killer using the victim's credit card within a few hours of the murder, along with surveillance footage and eyewitness help, police were able to identify and apprehend the suspect within 12 hours of the crime (naturally, the trial and DNA testing took longer). The bulk of the show almost never covers such a short amount of time.
  • Faking the Dead:
    • "A Squire's Riches" revolves around the case of Ari Squire, who sought out someone who looked like him and murdered that person in a fire for the purposes of faking his own death.
    • "Mistaken for Dead" is about a businessman Gene Hanson, his partner John Hawkins, and a doctor named Richard Boggs who murder a man in the doctor's office then try to pass the dead man off as Hanson.
  • The Farmer and the Viper:
    • Narrowly averted in "Reel Danger". One of the assailants went to the home of a woman, claiming that he was a diabetic whose sugar was low. She gave him orange juice and sent him on his way, unaware of his true intentions. She later caught him bragging to his friends about her generosity and their plan to come back to rob and assault her, but she was luckily able to scare them away. Two preteen boys who would encounter the teenagers later on weren't so lucky, as they were attacked instead.
    • Sadly played straight in "Palm Print Conviction", where the victim befriended one of her daughter's friends, had him over for dinner on occasion, them ran into him while running errands only for him to accost her then kill her when she rejected his advances.
  • Finally Found the Body:
    • Occasionally, the break in a missing persons case that's gone cold.
    • Many older episodes now have footnotes regarding the fate of the criminals and/or the victims' families and have included the fact that a victim's body has been located.
  • Foreshadowing: Brooke Sutton's aunt in "All Butt Certain" explained that she refused to accept her husband murdered her mother. She admitted some women cover up for their husband, but this was different since the victim was her mother and she would never cover up for someone who did that. This becomes pertinent later on when it's revealed the neighbor Brooke went to for help after the crime was actually covering up for her husband who committed it. Earlier, it was noted that the same neighbor made the obviously injured Brooke wait outside while she called the police, making this a double example.
  • Getting Crap Past the Radar:
    • The earlier episodes feature uncensored crime scene and autopsy photos.
    • In the episode "Window Watcher", the actress playing a female victim is shown changing into some night clothes, and her bare butt is shown on camera briefly without blurring.
    • "Elephant Tracks" had one on the investigators, who solved the crime of a double murder of an elderly couple and watched the killer unsuccessfully defend himself in court, call the man an "asshole" in the interview (and it being completely allowed). After a few airings of the episode, the interview was edited to remove the offensive word.
    • One of the reenactment scenes of Season 7's "The Alibi" contains an uncensored use of the word "asshole."
  • Gorn: The show had no qualms about broadcasting graphic crime scene and autopsy photos. For example, one episode concerned a killer who mailed packages containing pipe bombs. A crime scene photo shows one victim, a middle-aged woman, with her abdomen blasted open.
  • Greed: A fair number of causes are motivated by the victim's life insurance policy.
  • Hoist by His Own Petard:
    • The 1996 murder of wrestler champion Dusty Harless, which in a retrial was proven to have been caused when the drunk Harless attacked a bystander and tried to immobilize him on the ground to show off his fighting skills (something he had done to other people previously and often bragged about), only for the panicked bystander to pull a pocket knife and blindly stab Harless in the heart. The man, who had been sentenced to life for the murder, was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter instead, and was released because he had served 6 years already by that time.
    • A lot of criminals attempts at making it look like an accident/suicide/self-defense/someone else did it only end strengthening the evidence that they are the guilty party.
  • Hollywood Silencer: In "If I Were You", when the killer shoots his victim with a silenced pistol, the classic "fwip" sound is used.
  • Hope Spot: One episode goes to a commercial break asking if the missing person is still alive. This question is answered immediately after the show returns; the victim's remains are found in a ravine.
  • Hostile Hitchhiker: "Stranger in the Night" features a man who is attacked by a hitchhiker he picks up. He manages to escape, only to later return home to see the hitchhiker near his home. He brings the police, only to find his mother murdered. The police are skeptical of his claims that the hitchhiker must have gone after his mother for revenge, but it turns out the hitchhiker was the killer. The fact that the hitchhiker targeted his house was merely a coincidence, however.
  • If I Can't Have You...: A lot of murders are motivated by the victim either breaking up with or rejecting the advances of the killer.
  • Imperiled in Pregnancy: Several episodes have featured pregnant women being murdered—In "A Voice From Beyond", the police deduce that the woman was killed because she'd called her lover's wife and told her about the affair and her pregnancy, fed up with waiting for him to leave his marriage. Despite her being 8-9 months along, he had no qualms bludgeoning her to death in anger.
  • Implausible Deniability: In episodes where the guilty party is interviewed, they will continue to deny having involvement in a crime even in the case of overwhelming evidence.
  • Incriminating Indifference:
    • Inverted in "Yes, in Deed." When Michael Bryant was told about the fire that destroyed Edith Ann Haynes's home, he started crying before being told that Haynes was dead, which meant he already knew.
    • Inverted in the case of Kristine Fitzugh; her husband's over-the-top histrionics, particularly over the shoes he claimed caused her to fall down the stairs, came across as fake to detectives.
    • Played straight in an episode where a man poisoned his wife with antifreeze. He wouldn't even acknowledge the paramedics who came to try to save his wife and fell asleep during her funeral.
    • Subverted in “Bitter Potion”. While the husband’s affair and reluctance to take the victim to the hospital makes the detectives suspicious, he’s eliminated as a suspect when it’s discovered that nearly everyone in the family had also consumed the poison - including him.
  • Inheritance Murder: Money frequently turns out to be the reason for a murder.
  • Interrupted by the End: A variant. "Naked Justice" ends with the father of the victim stating that he hopes the murderer "rots in hell". The credits then abruptly roll.
  • Ironic Name: Gerardo Manso, the Cuban-born double murderer in "Scratching the Surface." Manso means "Meek" in Spanish.
  • Irony:
    • In "Missing Pearl", Bill Bruns murdered his wife, Pearl, over a dispute about money. After her body was finally found, an autopsy was conducted. The autopsy revealed that she had terminal cancer. It was pointed out that had Bill not killed Pearl, she would've died in six months.
    • It's been noted in several episodes that the attempts to cover up crimes actually created stronger forensic evidence.
    • In "A Voice from Beyond", Reyna Marroquín left her home country of El Salvador after she found out her husband got another woman pregnant. When she came to America, she found herself in the same situation. However, it was she who became the other woman and she was murdered because of it.
  • Karma Houdini: The neighbor in "All Butt Certain" left 6-year-old Brooke Sutton, who had just been raped, outside for an hour before calling the police, showing she knew full well her husband was the one who did it and was trying to cover for him before the police showed up. Seeing as her lack of testimony allowed an innocent man to go to jail and for her husband to molest their own children later on, you would hope she at the very least lost custody of her kids, but it's never elaborated on.
  • Kill and Replace: In "If I Were You", a local handyman murdered a man who had hired him, but continued to pay his bills and send correspondence to his daughter so as to give the impression that he was still alive.
  • Killer Cop: Quite a few episodes involve cases where the killer turns out to be a police officer.
  • Kubrick Stare: "The Church Lady" ends with the killer giving one of these in her prison mugshot.
  • Long-Runners: The series aired 404 episodes from 1996-2011. New episodes premiered in 2020.
  • Mail-Order Bride: "Vow of Silence" was about a man whose wife (one of these) mysteriously vanished after planning to leave him for another woman. The police dug into his background and realized that two other wives of his died under questionable circumstances when they announced their intention to divorce him.
  • Make It Look Like an Accident: Or suicide/natural causes/self-defense/someone else did it. Frequently attempted, and usually failed miserably.
  • Mama Didn't Raise No Criminal: Sometimes the loved ones of the accused will continue to deny that they had any involvement, despite the evidence. In one case, the daughter of a murderer was so convinced that her father didn't kill her mother that she refused to speak to her sister who believed that he did.
  • Man Bites Man: Some cases involve the killer biting the victim, leaving behind a bite mark that later helps identify the culprit.
  • Miscarriage of Justice:
    • A few episodes involve people being convicted of crimes they didn't commit. Eventually, they are exonerated by the forensic evidence and the real culprit is caught. The exceptions are "Scout's Honor", where the real culprit remains unidentified to this day, and "Freedom Fighter", where the real killer was identified but committed suicide before he could be arrested.
    • Narrowly averted in the case of Alvin Latham from the episode "Fishing for the Truth". He was acquitted, despite a false confession he gave to police after eight hours of interrogation.
  • Mistaken for Gay: In "Hear No Evil," Daphne Wright murdered Darlene Vandergiesen because she thought Vandergiesen was trying to start a relationship with her ex-girlfriend. In reality, Vandergiesen was straight and she and Wright's ex were just good friends.
  • Mistaken for Murderer:
    • In "Kill'igraphy", a weird loner was instantly believed to have murdered his wife by everybody. However, it was later proven that she had actually died after suffering a seizure.
    • In "Deadly Formula", a woman had custody of her child taken from her and was later tried and convicted of poisoning him with antifreeze. After she gave birth to another child while in prison and he developed the same symptoms as his elder brother while being away from her, they realized that the supposed antifreeze poisoning was actually a rare genetic disease.
    • In "Within Arm's Reach", a local cop was charged with murdering his wife with a shotgun, but she actually shot herself in the gut while operating the shotgun with her toes.
    • In "Fishing for the Truth", a man was accused of murdering the captain of his boat when the coroner mistook propeller marks on the body for knife wounds.
    • In "Man's Best Friend?", a couple was tried and convicted of murdering their young daughter, only for further investigation to reveal that she was fatally attacked by the family's dogs. Even more heartbreaking, not only did their years in prison ruin their happy marriage, but the little girl told them as her last words, "It was the dogs who did it", only for them not to be believed.
    • Another woman was accused of setting a fire that killed her son. It turned out to be the result of a space heater that overloaded the old and frayed wiring of the house.
    • In "Up in Smoke", a man was thought to have killed his parents and set a fire with gasoline to cover it up. It turns out his mother's match fell onto their sofa and started the blaze, and the accelerant came from the cheap varnish on the wood floor underneath the carpet.
    • In "Memories", a Marine had been accused of beating his pregnant wife, nearly killing her and causing the death of their unborn daughter. Although he was out of the home getting fast food at the time of her attack, he had a history of substance abuse and domestic violence, neighbors heard them arguing that evening and she had identified him as her attacker. The true murderer, who was a Serial Killer, was eventually found, but he still spent sixteen years in prison for the serial killer's crimes. Due to the brain injury she received, the victim still believed that her ex-husband was responsible even after the truth was revealed.
  • Murder the Hypotenuse: Some murders are a result of a Love Triangle (real or otherwise), where the culprit thinks that killing one of the other parties will make it easier to get the person they want.
  • Never Found the Body: Sadly, occasionally the fate of some of the victims. Luckily, the evidence is enough for a murder conviction.
  • Never Suicide: Frequently, the killer will attempt to disguise the murder as a suicide. This is subverted in "Where the Blood Drops" and "Within Arm's Reach". Police initially didn't believe the deaths were suicides, but a closer examination of the evidence revealed that they were.
  • Never Trust a Trailer: The opening trailer for "Runaway Love" notes that the victim's ex-husband and daughter are missing, implying that the ex may have murdered her and kidnapped their daughter. In the actual show, it's quickly revealed that the reason they couldn't find the ex-husband was because he'd been away on a business trip and was surprised to find police at his home.
  • Noodle Implements: The teaser for later episodes almost always ended with Peter Thomas listing what sound like random, bizarre items that forensic scientists would end up using to crack the case (something like how a shred of paper, half a shoelace, and a dead beetle led police to the killer).
  • Offing the Offspring: In some episodes, the killer is the parent of a child victim. One of the most disturbing episodes is "Honor Thy Father", which is about how a beautiful and intelligent Palestinian teenager was murdered by her parents in an "honor killing". Their reasoning? She had a job at a fast food restaurant to earn her own money and had a black boyfriend, a fellow honor student. Even though they tried to claim that it was in self-defense, because the father was an associate of terrorists, the authorities had put a hidden audio wire to listen to his conversations and had caught the murder on tape. Aside from the girl's screams, one of the most horrifying moments was when she begged her mother to stop her father from killing her, only for her to hold her down and tell her to shut up.
  • Pædo Hunt:
    • This is frequently shows up in cases that involve children being murdered.
    • "Home Evasion" concerns the case of a man who was awaiting trial for raping his infant daughter. Knowing that child molesters tend to be treated badly by other prisoners, he ended up breaking into a woman's house and shooting her because he figured that if he went to jail for murder, his fellow inmates would be too intimidated to mess with him.
  • Pater Familicide: John List murdered his mother, wife and three children due to regarding his life as a failure.
  • Phoney Call: In "Dinner and a Movie", a pregnant woman is found dead in her bedroom. Her husband Ed Sherman's alibi is that he was on a fishing trip, and had called home from his friend's house and gotten no answer. However, it's revealed that the friend's young daughter had picked up an extension and realized that Sherman was talking to a ringing phone. He had killed his wife before leaving, and turned up the air conditioner to slow decomposition of her body.
  • Pillow Pistol: Invoked by the killer in "Broken Promises", who claims that her husband was keeping a handgun under his bed and that she shot him by mistake when removing it. This is contradicted by the fact that the victim was trained in firearms safety and would never sleep with a pistol with the safety off under his bed, and the fact that the pistol had a trigger pull too strong to set off by mistake.
  • Pistol-Whipping: In "A Woman Scorned", the killer shoots the victim in the face, but that fails to kill her. The gun jams when they try to shoot her a second time, so they just beat her to death with it.
  • The Plague: The episode "Bio-Attack: Oregon Cult Poisonings" is about the first and single largest bioterrorism attack in U.S. history, when a Cult deliberately contaminated salad bars across several Oregon towns with salmonella in order to rig a county election. Over 750 people were infected with salmonella, with 45 of them being hospitalized. The plot failed, but most of the businesses that were contaminated died out, despite people recognizing that they weren't at fault.
  • Pun-Based Title: Most of the episode titles have some sort of double meaning or play on words. Some of the more groan-inducing ones include: "Sim-ilar Circumstances", "Pure Bread Murder" and "Sworded Scheme".
  • Rape as Drama: A significant number of episodes are about sexual assaults that lead to murder. Usually the culprit gets caught because of DNA found on or near the victim. Oftentimes, the killer will try to explain away the biological evidence by saying that they had a consensual sexual encounter with the victim before they were murdered.
  • Red Herring:
    • Happens in a couple episodes. Most notably, this happens in the "Smiley Face" episode, where the initial prime suspect bore a striking resemblance to Kaye Robinson's attacker. He even drew a smiley face on an application, similar to the smiley face the attacker drew on Robinson with her blood. Amazingly though, through DNA and print analysis, he was found to not be her attacker. Even more peculiar is after the real rapist was found, the initial suspect disappeared without a trace.
    • Another episode had a man who described his bizarre and violent sexual fantasies of the victim; he then decided to explain how he would have murdered her, which included details similar to how the crime was committed. Despite this disturbing behavior, his DNA did not match the DNA at the scene.
    • When the co-owner of a construction company was bludgeoned to death, there's an ex-employee that seemed to be a shoo-in as the prime suspect. He still had keys, he and the boss didn't get on very well, and he left town after the murder. When the police, by sheer luck, got a bag full of evidence to check, they found out that his DNA didn't match. Furthermore, his leaving town was due to an illness. He may have disliked the boss, but he still wanted to get his last paycheck in exchange for the keys, which were found to be another clue. It turned out that the other co-owner was embezzling, and he clubbed her to death when she told him to pay up or she would have him arrested.
  • Retraux:
    • The first episode of Season 15, "Revenge", for some reason had the dramatization footage shot in black-and-white (much like the earlier episodes) and was made to resemble the pre-Season 7 episodes.
    • Inverted with the HLN and CNN reruns of the earlier episodes, which have been edited to resemble the newer episodes.
  • Revenge by Proxy:
    • "Oily in the Morning" focuses on a man who waited nearly twenty years to get revenge on his high school crush by killing her son.
    • "A Woman Scorned" features a woman getting back at her former boyfriend by killing his wife and their infant son.
    • "The Letter" features a woman who gets back at her ex-boyfriend by poisoning his mother and trying to pin the crime on him.
  • Revisiting the Cold Case: Several episodes are re-enactments of crimes that went cold decades ago.
  • Sarcasm-Blind: One suspect sarcastically commented that he must have committed the crime while asleep. Detectives took this as a legitimate confession and arrested him. Thankfully for him, forensic evidence proved he didn't do it.
  • Self-Made Orphan: A few episodes feature people murdering their parents.
  • Serial Killer: Several, such as the I-5 Strangler and the Zodiac copycat.
    • Occasionally averted, such as in "Blanket of Evidence" where two women were murdered in the same State Park. Police suspected a serial killer, but eventually forensic evidence proved that the two killings were completely unrelated.
  • Serial Killings, Specific Target: "Postal Mortem" and "Something's Fishy" both feature killers diverting attention from their main targets by killing additional people.
  • Shame If Something Happened: In "Three's a Crowd", a Sleazy Politician pressures one of his lovers into killing a woman that left him by showing a picture of her son and hinting that bad things will happen to him if she doesn't kill the other woman.
  • Shameful Strip: Since some of the episodes focus on rape, this inevitably comes up. But, one noteworthy (and disturbing) example happens in "All That Glitters Is Gold", where the victim Megan Barroso is gunned down in her car, and then abducted by her assailant. Who then drops her off (while she's still alive, but bleeding fatally) in a ditch, and removes her jacket, and her pants (her shoes were also lost, when she was removed from her car). Megan's jacket was found at her killer's house, suggesting he took it as a "trophy", but it's unknown why he removed her pants, as her remains were too decayed to indicate if she'd been sexually assaulted, and her pants weren't found at his home suggesting he junked them.
  • Shifting the Burden of Proof: While it may not have been intentional, the series definitely seemed to posit that accused parties not proving their innocence was equivalent to guilt. The American legal system does not work this way, and the narrator intoning that the accused "did not have an alibi" or that they "could not prove where they were at the time of the crime" simply does not fly as evidence of criminal wrongdoing.
  • Slain in Their Sleep: In the episode “Family Ties”, a court official and his wife are attacked in their sleep.
  • Something Completely Different: Most of the the episodes focus on murder cases or other crimes, such as arson. However, once in a while, there is an episode that focuses on neither, such as:
    • "Breaking the Mold" is about a family suffering from a mysterious illness.
    • "Deadly Curve" focuses on a car accident that killed three Secret Service agents in a motorcade escorting the Queen of England during a visit.
    • "Visibility Zero: Amtrak Sunset Limited Train Crash" focuses on a 1993 train crash in Alabama.
    • "Flashover: The 1987 Kings Cross Underground" focuses on a fire that killed several people at Kings Cross.
    • Not an entire episode, but there is about a minute and a half of one episode where the detectives (and victim's father) involved in the case recount trying to catch a suspect's cat to get a blood sample (the cat was white and white animal hair had been found with the victim) which is surprisingly light-hearted and even humorous for the show.
    • "Core Evidence" focuses on a batch of apple juice that was contaminated with E. coli.
  • Spoiler Title:
    • One episode has Jenna Verhaalen's murder linked to three possible suspects; her boyfriend, a fellow neighbor, and a maintenance man working in her apartment. However, the episode's title is "Low Maintenance", practically giving away which of the three suspects was actually involved in the murder.
    • One episode focuses on a man who died from poisoning, and suspicion falls on one of his coworkers because that same type of poison is found in his workplace. However, the episode in question is entitled "Til Death Do We Part", which kind of gives away that the real murderer is the man's wife.
    • One episode mentions the disappearance of a wife and infant son. The episode seems to toy with the possibility that her husband is the culprit, but given that the episode's title is "A Woman Scorned", the viewer is likely waiting for the narrator to start talking about the husband's ex-girlfriend.
  • Stalker with a Crush: As seen in both "Shopping Spree" and the eerily similar episode "A Woman Scorned". They each featured a mentally unhinged person stalking/becoming obsessed with the victim and killing them. However, the latter episode may also cross into this, as the murderer had a past relationship with the victim's husband and began stalking her after she told her to stop calling their home.note 
  • Stockholm Syndrome: "Head Games" concerns a killer who kidnaps his victim's wife, then promises to let her go if she tells the police that the victim's death was an accident. The show name-drops this, including the incident that was the trope namer, as the reason why she told two different versions of the story.
  • Stupid Crooks: Sometimes, the killer's attempts to cover up their crime are jaw-dropping in their ineptness:
    • In "Muffled Cries", Jason Funk used his victim's credit card to make a purchase. He then proceeded to sign his name, allowing police to trace the card to him.
    • In "Transaction Failed", the killer and his daughter didn't even bother to hide their identity when they withdraw money from the victim's bank account.
    • In "Shattered Innocence", the son told the 911 operator that his father's bedroom door was locked. He then went on to say that his father's bleeding from the mouth, something he couldn't possibly know unless he was already in there.
    • In "Frozen Assets", George Hansen tried to dispose of the evidence by tossing it into a river, only to have it hit the ice. As the victim's boyfriend noted, had he went a few steps further before throwing, the bag would've landed in open water and sunk.
    • In "Freeze Framed", Stacey Castor attempted to pin the murders of her husbands on her daughter Ashley by tricking her into overdosing on sleeping pills then writing a phony suicide note pinning the murders on her. Her plan backfired when detectives notice that "antifreeze" was misspelled as "antifree", the same pronunciation Stacey used in a police interview.
    • In "Smoke in Your Eyes", the killer apparently thought it was a good idea to light up a cigarette while pouring gasoline through his victims' apartment. Not only did he come close to killing himself, he also left his glasses at the scene, which later helped identify him.
  • Taught by Television:
    • One episode features a woman who proved her incarcerated husband innocent of a rape and murder, using a technique she saw on a previous episode of the show. On the downside, there was another woman who poisoned both of her husbands with antifreeze, and attempted to poison her daughter while trying to make it look like she was responsible. She mentioned seeing an episode where a woman poisoned her first husband and common law husband with antifreeze.
    • It's not unusual for attorneys, detectives, or forensics experts interviewed on the show to mention previous episodes of the show as having helped them with a difficult case. In one case where a man faked his death in a fire so he could run off with his own life insurance money, the investigator figured out what was going on from watching an episode of the show where someone else did almost the exact same thing.
    • Another episode had a woman who was found dead when the husband, who was away on a boating trip in the ocean, asked the neighbor to check up on her. She was originally estimated to have died when the husband was in the middle of an ocean and her husband was originally ruled out of killing her. However, police notice that the AC was on the highest setting in her room and found out that she died much earlier allowing her body to decay slower then normal, putting her husband at the scene of the crime. He learned the AC trick from watching a movie where the killer in the movie did the same thing.
  • Technically Living Zombie: In "Family Ties", one of the victims briefly became this due the attack damaging his neocortex (which controls thought and reason) while leaving the paleocortex (which controls second-nature habits) intact. As a result, he's able to carry out his morning routine without realizing he's been gravely wounded until he collapsed and died from blood loss.
  • Theme Naming: Most of the episode titles relate to a clue that leads to the arrest of a suspect.
  • Til Murder Do Us Part: A huge chunk of episodes, starting with the very first one, have featured people who were killed by their husband or wife for a variety of reasons.
  • The Un-Reveal: For obvious reasons, some episodes do not reveal the name of a certain element that was crucial in committing the murder, such as one episode where a man killed his ex-wife after purchasing a book on how to commit a murder and get away with it or another where a young woman killed her father by poisoning him with a substance found in her high school chemistry class.
  • Urban Legends: Meta-example. There is a persistent rumor that the series was revived in 2016 for a 15th season and began airing new episodes. In actuality, the series did in fact end in 2011. HLN contributed to the confusion by advertising "all new" episodes, when in fact they were just episodes that hadn't aired on the channel. HLN would then, with full intents and purposes, prove the rumor true and indeed revive the series in 2020.
  • Vehicular Sabotage: In "Sunday School Ambush", Brenda Andrew first attempts to kill her husband Robert by cutting the brake lines in his car, then making a call claiming to be in the hospital in the hopes that he would race to the hospital and get into a fatal accident. The plan falls apart when he discovers the sabotage before receiving the call.
  • Voice of the Legion: In "Sealed with a Kiss", the person reading parts of the letters aloud early in the episode has a voice like this. They also read it in a flat tone which only serves to put even more emphasis on the fact that the identity of the person threatening Joanne Chambers is a total mystery. It later turns out that the culprit was Chambers herself:
    ???: Chambers brought pot into school and than showed it in the faculty room just like it was a big joke.
    ???: I can get you in one try. No one will ever prove it. They may not think so, but I'm smarter than all of you, you stupid bitch.
  • Well, This Is Not That Trope: The prosecutor in "Up in Smoke", a case where the forensics acquit the suspect, initially comes across as a bitter, arrogant jerk, so it's a surprise when he says of the defense's forensics team:
    "In this business, you have people that, for a certain amount of money, will tell you anything you wanna hear. These experts were not of that ilk."
  • What Happened to the Mouse?:
    • In "Waste Mis-Management", police find a body they believe to be Glenda Furch, but further testing reveals it to be someone else. We never learn who this woman is or whether her death was ever solved.
    • In "Insulated Evidence", it's never stated who the anonymous tipster was that alerted cops to murderer Joe Luna. The only other person who was apparently aware of Luna's crime was his girlfriend, but it's never established that she was the one who placed the call, nor does it seem like the investigators ever asked her about it.
  • Where Are They Now: Reruns of the older episodes include an update that offers information on the perpetrators—if they've died in prison/been executed/been released, etc.
  • Who Would Be Stupid Enough?: When the investigators run out of leads in "Muffled Cries," they check the murder victim's credit card activity, but without much hope "since criminals are rarely that inept." Fortunately, this one was.
  • Would Hurt a Child: Kids are not immune from being murdered.
  • Wounded Gazelle Gambit:
    • A British farmer reported numerous instances of harassment that were supposedly carried out by a neighbor with whom he'd had a dispute. This culminated in his wife being injured by a Car Bomb. Shortly after this, the neighbor came to the house and outright tried to kill him, forcing the farmer to kill him in self-defense. The investigation revealed that the whole thing was a set up. The man had been planning to kill his wife and created the incidents of harassment himself to establish a pattern and shift suspicion off himself. When the attempt at killing his wife failed, he invited the neighbor over to set up the fake attack to still try and lay the blame on him.
    • Averted but sadly played with. A guy knocked on a woman's door at 2 in the morning asking to use the phone, saying he ran out of gas and needed help. She knew better and told him not to come in and called the police. Sadly, he was living in the area at the time and was knocking on her door just so he could confirm that she was alone. He broke into the house later in the night after the police had left to rape and tried to murder her. By luck, she came out alive even though he stabbed her over 30 times.
    • Other episodes feature killers that deliberately harm themselves after committing the crime to make it look like they and the victim were both attacked by an unknown assailant.
  • Younger Than They Look: One episode featured a 13-year-old murder victim who looked much older and told people she was nineteen.


Video Example(s):


The List Murders

The key to making your sculpture of a mass murderer is finding the right pair of glasses

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