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To make a mistake is perfectly human, and aside from the lack of respect for life, murderers are as human as the next guy. Sometimes mistakes are made and the victim of a murder turns out to not be the intended target of the one who committed it. In Cop Shows, especially Police Procedurals, this can cause investigators to pursue Red Herrings and make other errors as the mistaken victim is assumed (at least, at first) to be the killer's intended target.
For criminals, hitting the wrong guy means that their intended victim might be alerted that someone's after them. Even worse, the wrong guy might be a person they actually care about.
Occasionally inverted when the killer kills the right person, but purposefully makes things look like Murder by Mistake. Especially brazen killers make themselves appear to be the intended target, thus taking themselves off of the police's radar entirely.
In Real Life, this is common enough for the rule of "transferred intent": intent follows the bullet, so that the intent to kill someone makes your killing anyone intentional. The Other Wiki has more here
Compare to Accidental Murder, where the dead people are accidental collateral damage rather than dead by misaimed intention.
Anime & Manga
- In Rurouni Kenshin, Kenshin kills Tomoe when she gets between him and his assassin.
- In Last Exile, Sofia's orders an attack on Maestro Delphine's flagship. Just as the ship is destroyed, she learns that her Love Interest Alex Rowe was on board and had just moments before killed Delphine himself.
- A character of Ai no Kusabi intended to Murder the Hypotenuse but while he succeeded, he also unintentionally got the beloved person he was trying to free killed as well.
- In FAKE, Ryo's parents were killed by the mafia when they were mistaken for the targeted drug runners for said mafia after taking the wrong bag at the airport.
- This is what created the Age of Apocalypse alternate reality in X-Men. The time-traveling mutant Legion attempted to assassinate Magneto, but missed and killed Charles Xavier instead. This caused Apocalypse to awaken some twenty years earlier than he did in the main Marvel universe. With neither the X-Men nor any of the other Marvel superhero teams (Fantastic Four, the Avengers, etc.) having been formed yet at that time, there was no one equipped to oppose Apocalypse and prevent him from taking over the world.
- Jubilation Lee's parents were mistakenly killed by hitmen who had actually been sent after their neighbors, who were also named Lee.
- In one issue of Jonah Hex, a killer tries to shoot Jonah through a curtained saloon window. He instead shoots the Soiled Dove who is prancing about the room in Jonah's hat.
- In Legally Blonde, the murderer wanted to kill her step-mother, and planned to kill her as she stepped in to their home. So when the door opened, the murderer took a shot. It ended up being her father.
- In The Cats Meow, Thomas H. Ince is shot by William Hearst from behind because he was wearing a bowler hat and Hearst mistook him for Charlie Chaplin, his intended target.
- In the film version of The Firm, DeVasher shoots and kills the Nordic Man thinking that he was Mitch McDeere, through a closed door after seeing a silhouette of the Nordic Man carrying McDeere's briefcase.
- From the movie Clue:
Mr. Green: "You're Mr. Boddy!"
- The surviving characters in Lighthouse devise a trap involving molotov cocktails to kill the psychotic Rook. They manage to torch a guy from earlier part of the film, who chose the wrongest possible moment to return to the lighthouse.
- In The Kennel Murder Case by S. S. Van Dine, one of the victims is killed because the killer mistook him for his brother (the intended victim).
- In the Nero Wolfe novel Please Pass The Guilt by Rex Stout, a person is killed by a trap bomb, but it isn't clear for whom the bomb was intended.
- In The Hollow Needle by Maurice Leblanc, the thinly veiled Expy of Sherlock Holmes pursues Lupin to his hideout and goes for a debilitating shot... unfortunately, it's the perfect height to murder the only wife that Lupin had been willing to fake his death for. Cue, instead of a Roaring Rampage of Revenge, a Heroic BSOD and a lifetime of commitment issues for Lupin, despite still sleeping around with one identity a known cad.
- Agatha Christie loved inverting this trope. For example:
- In both the Hercule Poirot mystery Peril at End House and the Miss Marple mystery The Mirror Crack'd from Side to Side, the murderer convinces nearly everyone that this was what happened, when in fact, the person who died was indeed the target, and the apparent intended victim was the murderer.
- Miss Marple encountered this again At Bertram's Hotel, where the murderer claims her victim was accidentally shot while defending her from an unknown assailant.
- A variant occurs in another Marple novel, They Do It with Mirrors. It's evident that Charles Gulbrandson was killed intentionally, but the murder set it up to make it look like Gulbrandson's murder was only incidental to his real target. Actually, Gulbrandson was the primary target and all other actions were just to cover it up. Differs from the above examples in that the murderer is someone other than the apparent intended target.
- Played with in The ABC Murders. The final murder does not fit the killer's pattern, making it appear that the murderer made a mistake. In reality, the final murder was unimportant to the pattern, and the killer merely chose his victim randomly.
- Agatha Christie also played this one straight at least once. In Sparkling Cyanide, the killers poisoned their intended victim's glass of wine at a restaurant, but then everyone at the table got up to dance and returned to the wrong chairs, so someone else got the poisoned glass.
- In John Morgan Wilson's Spider Season, the murderer tries to frighten Justice by putting a brown recluse spider in the mailbox. Instead, s/he accidentally kills Fred, one of Justice's elderly landlords.
- The Inspector Morse novel Death Is Now My Neighbour. The first victim dies because the killer meant to bump off the guy next door, but entered the wrong house.
- In the Isaac Asimov sci-fi mystery novel The Caves of Steel, the murderer was initially cleared from suspicion due to a mental scan that revealed that he was psychologically incapable of killing. However, he was perfectly willing to destroy a robot... which is what he thought he was doing when he pulled the trigger and killed the roboticist who had created R. Daneel in his own image.
- In the Jack Ryan novel The Bear And The Dragon, the action is kicked off when a relatively high-profile pimp is killed within view of the RVS chairman in a very public way. Because they were both in the same model and color car, the question for half the plot becomes whether or not the pimp was the intended target. He wasn't, the Chinese hired a former Spetznaz guy to kill the chairman to cause disorder in the Russian government.
- In Point Of Impact, which was the basis for the Mark Wahlberg film Shooter, the assassination is aimed for the President and, due to prevailing cross-winds, simply missed and hit the wrong target. Or so everyone believes, but the bullet hit who it was supposed to.
Live Action TV
- This happens very often in Law & Order. Often, the intended victim will just be wounded, while an innocent bystander is killed.
- Subverted in the Law & Order: Special Victims Unit episode "Raw", where a sniper shoots several children playing in their school's yard. One of the murdered children is the authentic target; the sniper shot the others intentionally to muddy the waters and make it seem like a random crime.
- The X-Files: In the episode "The Blessing Way", Dana Scully's sister Melissa is killed by mistake when Luis Cardinal and Alex Krycek, thinking that Melissa is Dana, shoot her in the head as she enters her sister's apartment.
- In the Columbo episode "A Bird In The Hand", a football team owner's gardener is mistakenly killed by a car-bomb. The killer is caught after Columbo watches a video tape of the explosion and notices the team owner's nephew wince as the gardener gets into the rigged car.
- In the Queen of Swords episode "Vengeance," a local noble is killed, causing everyone to think that an ongoing feud is escalating. The assassin was actually aiming at the doctor standing next to the nobleman, and missed.
- In Season 6 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Warren shoots Tara accidentally while trying to kill Buffy. This launches Willow into a double plus Roaring Rampage of Revenge.
- What, are we forgetting about what caused Faith to turn evil (even though it was at least half Buffy's fault)?
- An episode of Foyle's War had a man who accidentally killed someone with a similar name to the depraved RAF officer who impregnated his daughter, then drove her to suicide.
- In the fifth season finale of Highlander the Series, Duncan MacLeod is hunting around an abandoned racetrack in the dark, looking for a demon who is taunting him by prancing around wearing the faces of student Richie Ryan and conquered enemies Kronos and James Horton, who all appear at the same time and trap him between them. They all disappear, Duncan whips around...and in his confusion beheads the real Richie, who was there even though everyone told him not to go.
- The third episode of the French series Empreintes Criminelles starts with a scientist being shot in a brothel, from an unknown source. It turns out an Asshole Victim was being killed next room, and one of the bullets overpenetrated through the guy and the wall.
- The pilot of Starsky and Hutch is set up as this, with a hit on Starsky mistakenly taking out an innocent couple (due to their mutual possession of a fairly distinctive car); it develops that they actually were the intended victims, with Starsky set up as a fake target to misdirect attention from the real motive.
- The first Victim of the Week in the Midsomer Murders episode "The Glitch".
- And the first victim in "A Sacred Trust". As Barnaby points out, one nun in glasses looks much like another in the dark.
- Rizzoli and Isles: The first victim in "Rebel Without a Pause" was hit by a ricochet of a shot intended for someone else.
- In Hamlet, the title Prince stabs Polonius through a curtain, thinking him to be his Evil Uncle, Claudius, who he has sworn vengeance again.
- Later, Queen Gertrude drinks from a poisoned goblet of wine that Claudius had intended for Hamlet.
- Magic: The Gathering has a card called Goblin Assassin which may cause any player (including its owner) to sacrifice a creature any time a Goblin comes into play. It's flavour text strongly hints at the reason for this.
The more victims he kills, the more likely he is to get the right one.
- Ace Attorney involves this as well. Acro wanted to kill Regina for not realizing how she was responisble for his brother's coma. He has a plan to drop a heavy weight once she arrived a certain spot. However, he could not see who arrived at the spot due to his condition and placement, and ended up killing Regina's father, a man who he looked up to very much.
- In the Star Fox series, the Nintendo Power comics had Andross, the main Big Bad of the series, plan to get rid of James McCloud, father of Fox McCloud as he was in love with Vixy Reinard McCloud, Fox's mother and James' wife. However, she didn't love him back... at all (it was implied he was more of a Stalker with a Crush). So, he decided to kill James with a car bomb. Unfortunately, on the day he planted it, James let Vixy use his car to get to work, as hers was broken down, and she was killed in the following explosion.
- In one of the endings to Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors it is revealed that Ace's prosopagnosia results in him murdering Nijisaki, the decoy, instead of Snake. Granted, judging by the murder of the 9th man partly being motivated by him knowing too much, he would have murdered Nijisaki, an accomplice in the Nonary Project, anyway.
- The moment College Roomies from Hell officially completed Cerebus Syndrome was when April stabbed and killed Mike instead of Marsha.
- In V1 of Survival of the Fittest, Cody Jenson kills Amanda Jones, Adam Dodd's girlfriend, this way while trying to kill Sidney Crosby. This came shortly after the rape and murder of Madelaine Shirohara, which was the moment when Cody crossed the Moral Event Horizon, and would launch Adam Dodd into a Roaring Rampage of Revenge.
- Near the end of V2, Bryan Calvert shoots at who he believes to be principal murderess Mariavel Varella. He shoots Whitney Acosta by mistake instead. And in V4, Ilario Fiametta kills innocent Etain Brennan when trying to shoot Kris Hartmann.
- Both Dr Horrible and Captain Hammer of Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog. Horrible brought his Death Ray to kill Hammer but backed off at the last minute. Hammer took advantage of this stole his now broken gun and shot it at Horrible. The subsequent explosion send schrapnels flying at Penny Hammer's girlfriend and Billy's crush.
- After Eric injures Ursula by tossing a harpoon at her, Ursula decides that she's going to kill Eric by zapping her with King Triton's trident, which she had taken from Triton earlier when he fell victim to one of her contracts. However, Ariel prevents Ursula from doing so, causing her to accidentally hit Flotsam and Jetsam instead, which kills them both. Ursula then proceeds to focus on killing Ariel, transforming into a giant out of anger.
- The very first attempt on the life of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria involved the would-be assassin throwing a hand grenade at the Archduke's car and missing. The explosion injured several innocent bystanders instead. Ironically, the Archduke was finally assassinated while he was on the way to visit several of the casualties of the explosion.
- The Archduke's wife, Duchess Sophie, was shot by mistake as well. She was sitting next to her husband in the back seat of their open touring car, across from General Potoriek, the military governor of Bosnia, another intended target of the assassination conspiracy. Gavrilo Princip testified that he was so shocked by the presence of the lady right in the path of his intended victims that he didn't even take aim when he fired, but shot with his eyes closed. He expressed great remorse over Sophie's death, stating that he had never intended to deprive the Archduke and Duchess' children of their mother. (Additionally, some accounts of the murder have Princip's arm being grabbed by a plainclothes police officer who was standing next to him, thus deflecting the bullet that was meant for General Potoriek so that it hit the Duchess instead.)
- One of the seemingly infinite theories about the Kennedy Assassination is that Lee Harvey Oswald was actually trying to kill someone else who was in the car with the president.