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Keitner: I need proof. Hard evidence I can take to Interpol.Jenson: Point taken.
Jenson: An entire prison full of kidnapped civilians isn't enough?
Keitner: You're an ex-cop, Jenson; you tell me. How many death row inmates crying on about their innocence have you seen getting out?
—Deus Ex: Human Revolution (The Missing Link DLC)
Sometimes, the hero is accused of a crime they did not commit, and must haul ass to prove their innocence.
And sometimes, the person accused of the crime is someone else, who is incapable of proving their own innocence. Maybe they've already been arrested or convicted, and had the key thrown away long ago. Maybe the evidence is stacked up against them and almost nobody believes them. Maybe they're just not badass enough to do it themselves. Either way, it's up to the Big Damn Heroes to buck the odds and naysayers, find the evidence and Clear Their Name.
The poor sap locked up will usually have one person -- often a beloved relative or a best friend (who's actually in love with them, hence their fixated devotion) -- who remains committed to their cause, and who brings in the often-initially skeptical heroes to investigate the case. In some cases, the loved one's devotion to the wrongfully accused will persist even if the wrongfully accused has given hope of being acquitted. If the hero's good enough, they may learn of the case independently and offer their services to the skeptical police, who are convinced they've got the right person locked up. In some cases, the police might be corrupt and actively perpetuating a Miscarriage of Justice in order to obscure the true culprit or another crime.
Given the nature of the trope, it usually occurs in media which involves defense attorneys or Private Detectives unaffiliated by the police, although particularly conscientious police officers may find themselves also working to clear some innocent's name.
An occasional subversion is to have the person who's locked up be guilty after all. Another popular twist is to have the guilty party be the one who wants the accused cleared (often because of feelings of guilt) but doesn't have the guts (or in some odd cases can't prove it as it looks like they're just taking the fall for them) to confess.
If it's the protagonist who has to prove himself/herself innocent in the face of a false accusation, it's Clear My Name.
Anime and Manga
- Victorique from Gosick does this for her deceased mother back in her home town, where she was accused of killing a priest and was banished.
- Variation in Monster: the hero, Dr. Tenma, is Wrongly Accused. However, he doesn't really care about clearing his name, considering stopping Johan, the actual culprit, much more important. However, some of his friends do care, and spend their time piecing together information in the interests of proving Tenma innocent.
- An old Spider-Man story revealed that Spidey's parents had been secret agents who had been killed in action by a supervillain, then framed as traitors as a final insult. Spidey then went on a quest to clear his parents' names.
- The Batman storyline Bruce Wayne: Fugitive had this. The Bat-family teamed up to figure out if Bruce truly did kill his latest girlfriend in an attempt to protect his identity. The kicker comes from the fact that, during this time, Batman's just said Screw This and abandoned the Bruce Wayne identity.
- 2011's Magneto: Not a Hero miniseries revolves around the reformed (again) X Men archvillain trying to clear himself after being framed for killing a group of anti-mutant protesters.
- True Believer, starring James Woods and Robert Downey Jr. as a couple of defense lawyers who re-open a previously closed case to expose a miscarriage of justice of this nature.
- National Treasure 2. In a subversion, they're not trying to help an innocent person avoid jail, but rather clear the name of the main character's ancestor, who is being wrongly accused of assisting in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, when in fact he sacrificed himself to keep the South from regaining power based on a secret he discovered.
- In Sin City, parole officer Lucille takes the cases for both Marv and John Hartigan and tries desperately to clear their names. She doesn't and actually gets killed in the process in Marv's story.
- Sherlock Holmes did not commonly deal with this type of investigation in the original Doyle mysteries; however, several of the stories were reworked for the Granada televised series in such a way as to make them into this. Such an episode frequently begins with Inspector Lestrade or one of his peers smugly gloating to Holmes that it's an open-and-shut case this time, and that the person Lestrade's got locked up is definitely the killer, no questions asked. Some examples which originally were (or became) Clear Their Names in one way, shape or form, however, were:
- The Blue Carbuncle; in this one, Holmes enters this plot independently of the main investigation, having entered the case following a seemingly unrelated and trivial matter elsewhere.
- As is The Boscombe Valley Mystery. Although he's brought in by Lestrade originally, Holmes becomes convinced that the suspect is innocent early on and is encouraged to investigate further by said young man's childhood friend, who'd very much like to be his girlfriend, actually.
- The Norwood Builder is another example, in which a young man was accused of murdering a wealthy old curmudgeon who had recently named him his heir.
- The Man With The Twisted Lip. While not his primary objective, Holmes does prove that the titular man did not abscond with the missing man while figuring out what happened to him.
- The Beryl Coronet. Holmes was mainly concerned with finding the missing part of the coronet, but he did prove that the banker's son was not the one who stole it in the process.
- Silver Blaze. Holmes' primary concern was finding the missing horse, not proving that the man arrested for stealing it (And killing the stablemaster) wasn't responsible, even though he ultimately did both.
- Thor Bridge. Holmes proved the governess had not murdered the client's wife.
- Sussex Vampire. Holmes proved that the wife's apparent sucking of her child's blood was not malicious and had absolutely nothing to do with vampirism.
- Lion's Mane. Holmes proves that Murdoch was not responsible for McPherson's death (Not that there was sufficient evidence to arrest in this case).
- Dancing Men. Holmes was hired to investigate some strange drawings by a man who is later killed. He cracks the code and proves that the man sending the coded messages was the killer, not the client's wife.
- A Study in Scarlet. Inspector Gregson arrested a suspect for the first murder, and Holmes found the man who committed both murders (To be fair, Gregson's suspect did have a plausible motive).
- The Sign of the Four. Athelney Jones arrests virtually everyone present at the murder scene for complicity in the murder. After Holmes tracked down the parties responsible it turned out that one of the people Jones had arrested really was involved, which doesn't change the fact that Holmes had cleared the names of everyone else in that household.
- Noble Bachelor. At one point the missing woman's maid was suspected of either kidnapping her or working with an unidentified kidnapper. Holmes proved that no kidnapping had taken place.
- Black Peter. While Neligan was caught red-handed in attempted burglary (of stock certificates stolen from his murdered father, and thus were arguably his property to begin with), he did not kill Black Peter, and Holmes was able to find the true killer.
- Abbey Grange has a unique version. An unidentified American police officer clears the Randall gang of a murder in Kent by arresting them for their other crimes in New York the morning after the murder (Overnight travel from England to America being impossible in 1897).
- Subverted in Wicked. Glinda volunteers to tell the Ozians that Elphaba isn't a wicked witch - but Elphaba makes her promise not to, so the government won't do the same to her to keep her quiet.
- This happens to pilot Tycho Celchu in the X Wing Series - he was briefly held by The Empire's mistress of brainwashing, they dumped thousands of credits into his bank accounts, he was seen with someone who from behind looked liked one of the prominent Imperials, and he was in position to kill Corran Horn. Who did not actually die. All the Rogues indicate that they think he's innocent, but not a lot of others share that opinion. It's mentioned that most of the evidence is circumstantial, but there's a mountain of it, so it looks like he's either guilty and made to look innocent through a clumsy frame, or innocent made to look guilty clumsily made to look innocent. This is what the bad guys intend, since his trial adds to the New Republic's problems.
- Wedge Antilles eventually does find evidence of the real traitor, Erisi Dlarit. It helps that just a few minutes prior, the "victim" had entered the courtroom (nullifying the murder charge in the process, but not the other charges), and had figured out not only the identity of the traitor, but also that one of the members of the tribunal--General Cracken, intelligence division--already knew that Tycho was innocent. Cracken, however, had deliberately let the trial continue in hopes of flushing out the real traitor, and after the trial took steps to make sure that Tycho's good name was restored.
- To Kill a Mockingbird's main plot is an iconic example in American literature.
- The premise behind The Life of David Gale: a journalist tries to clear the titular character of murder charges while he is on death row but she is doomed to just barely fail to stop his execution as the whole thing was a Xanatos Gambit to end the death penalty.
- Another example from classic American literature is The Witch of Blackbird Pond. Protagonist Kit is accused of witchcraft in Salem, and can't prove her own innocence. Luckily, her Love Interest Nat finds the child who can verify that she hasn't done anything wrong, and brings her to the courthouse in time to save Kit from condemnation.
- In the 1925 novel Not Under the Law, protagonist Joyce Radway leaves home after a fight with her cousin and takes up residence in a city some miles away. No one knows what's become of her, but several months later she happens to see her hometown newspaper and discovers that a close childhood friend has been accused of her murder. She heads home in time to interrupt the trial and prove that she's still alive.
- This is the plot of Sarah Caudwell's mystery Thus Was Adonis Murdered: Julia gets arrested for murder while on holiday in Venice, and Hilary has to remotely solve the murder so as to get her off.
- In The Roman Mysteries book Slavegirl of Jerusalem, the main characters must clear the name of a slavegirl falsely accused of murder.
- In the second book of the Knight and Rogue Series Fisk is called home to prove his brother-in-law innocent. Said brother-in-law, Max, was accused of having bribed several witnesses no falsely acuse two men so he could have them hung.
- This is most of the plot of Iorich. Aliera was arrested on a very stupid, transparent charge and she refuses to talk to a lawyer or put up a decent defense. Vlad decides that even if she is a Jerkass, he'd still prefer she didn't get executed, and he finds the idea of her owing him her life hilarious.
Live Action Television
- Nine times out of ten, this is the plot that Perry Mason has to deal with.
- There's been a few episodes in the Law and Order franchise where the detectives have had to either re-open an old case due to new evidence or have had to do a 180 on a guy they themselves locked up.
- In the popular and famous Korean television drama Jewel In the Palace, protagonist Jang Geum's main purpose throughout the entire story is to clear the name of both her deceased mother and her mentor (who were both framed and wrongfully accused and executed for a crime they didn't commit).
- This trope commonly occurs in a lot of Asian historical dramas, normally in the form of children trying to clear the name of their parents. Justified in that family name is extremely important in such cultures.
- In the same vein as Perry Mason, Matlock.
- This is a common plot in The Rockford Files, whether it's a relative of the accused or Jim's attorney friend Beth Davenport requesting that Jim clears an innocent person's name.
- Prison Break: Good thing Linc had Michael and Veronica.
- Star Trek the Next Generation. In "Sins of the Father" Worf has to clear the name of his deceased father, who has been accused by the Klingon High Council of treason. This is Serious Business for a Klingon, as to challenge this verdict means Worf and his descendents become traitors by default.
- In the 1987 BBC adaptation of Dorothy L. Sayers' Have His Carcase, this trope is lampshaded by both Flora Weldon (the distraught widow and fiancee of Paul Alexis) and Lord Peter himself. After Alexis' body is finally found and an inquest is held, the coroner's verdict prompts comments that his name must be cleared of suicide. Note that the book was written and set in the early 1930s and suicide was illegal for several centuries in England and Wales (until it ceased to be an offence with the passing of the Suicide Act of 1961)
- A rather convoluted example in Lizzie McGuire. After Lizzie and Matt end up switching minds for some reason, they have to cope with it for the day. Lizzie, in Matt's body, ends up learning that he (or rather, her brother) was being punished for a prank that (this time) Matt was completely innocent of involving soap and the drinking fountain. It turns out the person responsible was actually a kid who wanted revenge against Matt because he often ruins his pudding.
- Common in the CSI franchise. In the original, the team has to clear Nick of murdering a prostitute. And much later, Warrick of killing a gangster. CSI: NY has Hawkes and Danny both having to have their names cleared by Mac and the team at various times.
- Shawn and Gus help a man freed from prison find out who committed the crime he was imprisoned for in the Psych episode "True Grits"
- Tony finds out he sent an innocent man to prison in the NCIS episode "Bounce".
- A marine escapes to prove his innocence in the JAG episode "Secrets"
- Ace Attorney is another one that stands with Perry Mason and Matlock. The goal in every case to clear the name of their client and determine the true culprit. A good third of the suspects even insist on pleading guilty, making the lawyer's job that much harder. In Investigations Edgeworth usually has to clear at least two suspects per case in order to get to the real murderer- even though he's usually a prosecutor!
- Done twice in the second game's final case. First Phoenix accuses Adrian to get Matt cleared, then discovers that neither were technically guilty--Matt had hired an assassin to do the job for him. Phoenix must then clear Adrian's name in order to re-incriminate Matt, all the while pretending that he's still defending Matt.
- In case 4 of Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney, getting the culprit and clearing the defendant's name are the defense's only goals after the defendant starts suffering from an apparently mortal poisoning.
- In case 4 of Trials and Tribulations, Mia takes on the case of a death row convict already convicted for murder once before. She very nearly gets him cleared on both charges, but he commits suicide rather than let the real killer, his Manipulative Bitch of a girlfriend, go to jail for her crimes.
- About the first 1/3 of Breath of Fire 2 is about Ryu persuing the culprit of a robbery his friend Bosch/Bow was accused of.
- In No Rest for The Wicked, November sets out into the woods to look for a way to clear Claire's name, Perrault follows, and reveals that Red also went, first.
- In one episode of DuckTales, Uncle Scrooge is sentenced to prison for the theft of a priceless piece of art, thanks to some pretty damning evidence -- footage from the museum security camera. Huey, Dewey and Louie believe in his innocence, however, and ultimately uncover the proof that it was really Flintheart Glomgold in an Uncle Scrooge costume.
- The very first Sideshow Bob episode in The Simpsons had Bart trying to clear Krusty the Clown of committing armed robbery. Bob pulled it off with a very convincing disguise, but was foiled when Bart pointed out that the real culprit (Bob), unlike the real Krusty, had really big feet. Bob and Bart have been Arch Enemies ever since.
- Bart himself was suspected of having Principal Skinner murdered by gangsters after Skinner's keeping him in detention prevented him from getting to work at Fat Tony's club and caused Fat Tony a lot of trouble with a fellow crime boss. The mobsters do everything they can to make Bart look like the mastermind and make themselves look innocent, and it looks like Bart is going to go to jail until Skinner himself interrupts the trial and proves Bart's innocence. As it turns out, the reason Skinner disappeared was because he became trapped under a large pile of newspapers while cleaning out his garage. He was stuck for several days before he managed to free himself.
- ↑ A person who successfully committed suicide might be beyond the law's reach, but the dead person's corpse and property were not.