A character has been wrongfully convicted
of a capital crime. His lawyer, girlfriend, parents and children are all working to get him released from prison by way of a pardon, or perhaps a new trial. Time is running out, however, as his date of execution has been set.
The lawyer finally talks to judge and gets a stay, or the parents or girlfriend finally gets in to talk to the governor and he issues a pardon. But by the time word gets to the warden of the prison, the execution has already happened.
The flipside of this is the Last Minute Reprieve
where an acquittal comes just in time.
As a Death Trope, all Spoilers will be unmarked ahead. Beware.
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Anime & Manga
- Narrowly averted in the Superman Adventures story "Superman's Busy Day". The Man of Steel's Super Speed is just fast enough to save the victim before the gas gets to him.
- In Go Tell It on The Mountain, Richard is arrested for a robbery he didn't commit, and while he is acquitted at trial, the experience - including the abuse he takes at the hands of white police officers - leads him to commit suicide on his first night home.
- In Crimson by Gord Rollo, a man on death has been charged with murders that were committed by a demonic creature that has plagued him and framed him. His ally knows he's innocent and she manages to get him acquitted. However, the man doesn't want to be saved, because if he dies then the creature is killed with him, so when it's time to get executed, he embraces his destiny and dies happy.
- Harry Potter:
- Sirius Black had been sent to Azkaban for crimes he didn't commit (And in one case, never actually happened) and wasn't allowed to have a trial. He didn't live long enough to see the real culprit being exposed.
- Within Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, readers learn that Voldemort had his uncle framed and incarcerated for his murder of his muggle father and grandparents. When Dumbledore found evidence indicating the truth, he tried to get the conviction overturned, but Voldemort's uncle died in prison before the ministry reached their decision.
- Voldemort also framed a House Elf named Hokey for poisoning her mistress with the same methods he used to frame his uncle. The Ministry didn't bother investigating the situation any further because she was a House Elf.
- In The Lincoln Lawyer, Jesus Menendez had been framed with rape and murder. While he even lived to see himself pardoned once the real culprit had been caught, he caught AIDS while in prison.
- The Zombie Survival Guide mentions a recorded encounter where the sole survivor of a hunting party claimed that they were attacked by zombies. The other colonists don't believe him and he is executed. Turns out he was telling the truth. Oh, and the colony? Roanoke Island.
- Played for Laughs in America (The Book), where lynchings are mentioned to have happened in the country's past. The book proceeds to mention that many of these lynchings were later overturned by DNA evidence.
- In both Gesta Danorum and The Saga Of Ragnar Lothbrok, King Aella of Northumbria has Ragnar thrown into a Snake Pit to die, but changes his mind at the last minute. He gives orders to release Ragnar from the pit, but the message arrives too late, and Ragnar is already dead.
Live Action TV
- Classic Twilight Zone episode "Shadow Play". A man about to be executed, Adam Grant, believes that everything around him is a dream, and if he is executed, they will all cease to exist. A reporter convinces the prosecutor who convicted Grant that this belief means that Grant is insane and shouldn't be executed. The prosecutor calls the governor and gets a stay of execution, but the call to the prison arrives just after Grant has been executed. After Grant's death the entire set fades to black. It fades in with a different cast of characters, except for the protagonist. Turns out Grant was right!
- Cold Case:
- An episode appropriately titled "Death Penalty: Final Appeal" had a man falsely accused of rape and murder executed before the detectives could clear his name. In this case, however, the detectives did find evidence to clear the man in time, but the DA who put him in jail stonewalled their attempts to do so. They find the evidence they need and arrest the guilty man, the day after the innocent one was executed.
- Somewhat in "Thrill Kill": Two innocent men were imprisoned for killing three boys. One of the two commits suicide in prison, which is what prompts the detectives to re-investigate. They manage to free the other one though.
- Cold Case had a plot of of a man being convicted of an 'arson' that was a negligent landlord, bad wiring, and an accidental fire. Both the man's kids were killed. His brother defended him and helped reveal his innocence, but there was no explicit mention of the landlord being punished. The innocent man had been killed in prison
- CSI Verse:
- One CSI: Miami episode had the suspect arrested in the pre-credits sequence. Throughout the episode, it keeps cutting back to the hell he's going through in prison, until a guard eventually finds him standing over a dead body during a riot with a shank. Turns out that a) he was innocent of the first crime, and b) he killed the dude in prison in self-defense; the deceased had been raping him. His dialogue with Horatio at the end implies he's already been screwed up by even his short stay.
- Also occurred on the main CSI: Crime Scene Investigation when a registered "sex offender" (he was not a child molester or a pedophile; rather, he got drunk and urinated in public, and while doing so inadvertently exposed himself to some kids) is suspected in the death of a little girl. The mere suspicion (plus revelation of the sex offender status he tried to hide) ruins what little life he'd built for himself in Vegas.
- Another episode of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation began with an ex-cop convicted for murdering his wife (another cop who really got around) getting shanked to death during a prison riot. The investigation of his death revealed that his "victim" had faked her death to get him sent to prison and had arranged his death when he tried to get his case reopened.
- Law & Order: Special Victims Unit:
- An episode starts off with a woman stumbling out of an elevator during a hotel opening. The staff shuttles her off to the side, and a suspect (who is on the sex offender registry as a pedophile) is later arrested. Turns out it's a scam to get money from the hotel, the supposedly under-age "victim" was in her 20s rather than her teens, the sex was consensual, and the "suspect" was a patsy set up by the girl and her family. Unfortunately, by the time anyone remembers that they have an innocent man in jail, the "suspect" had already been killed in prison (pedophiles being very unpopular in prison populations). Fortunately, that made the woman and her accomplices legally culpable for murder.
Disturbingly enough, Munch is the only one who is bothered by the suspect's death (as opposed to being glad the woman and her accomplices didn't get away) and takes the trouble of informing the dead man's ex-girlfriend (who, it turns out, was the same girl the suspect purportedly "molested" when they both were teenagers, he 17 and she 15 and who, it also turns out was still in love with him and had been for nearly a decade).
- In another episode, a young woman "recalls" that her father sexually abused her in her youth after a psychiatrist "recovers" memories of the abuse. In typical SVU fashion it goes downhill from there, with the father being villified as a monster by everyone, including the SVU department and his own family, culminating in the father being shot by his other daughter in a misguided attempt to protect her sister from him. Only then does the truth come to light. DUH ! The ultimate vindication was that the daughter's hymen was intact.
- Law & Order:
- A series of murders are carried out in one day. The detectives discover circumstantial evidence connecting a loner to the crime, and he refuses point blank to give an account of his whereabouts during the crimes. While he's remanded in custody, the ADA tracks down his mother, who reveals that her son was with his gay lover at the time, and the reason he wouldn't talk is he didn't want her to know, not knowing she already did. By the time this is discovered, however, he has been stabbed to death in prison.
- Another episode uncovered the fact that a lab technician falsified fingerprint evidence that sent two men to prison. One of them has been murdered in prison by the time the episode takes place. The survivor is later acquitted.
- The UK version of the show had an episode, "Shaken" where a young nanny and her boyfriend were accused of killing her employer's baby. They were arrested and jailed, but the nanny is freed, leaving the boyfriend behind bars. By the end of the episode, the husband's ex-girlfriend (who couldn't have children) confesses that she killed the baby out of rage and depression. The boyfriend is cleared, but the Crown Prosecutors find out that he was beaten to death by another prisoner when they go to get him out of jail.
- In one episode of the show In Justice, a gentle retarded man was arrested for an unsolved murder, and sentenced to death. It's never made clear, but the strong suggestion is that he's innocent. His lawyers try every last-minute appeal they can think of to delay his execution and they fail. He dies on schedule, and the episode — and the case, presumably — is closed.
- It's more up in the air actually. The heroes know who the real murderer is, and are able to persuade his wife to retract the alibi she gave him. If the team continues investigating (a strong possibility give that the hero confronts the murderer in his house) they may be able to find enough proof to get a posthumous exoneration).
- Played with in an episode of The Closer; Priority Homicide is fairly certain they know who the serial killer is, they just need to find him... which they do, as a corpse, murdered before the murders (re)started. The guy never had a chance to claim his innocence.
- Inverted in Prime Suspect Five, when Campbell Lafferty turns himself in for the murder of a drug dealer, but the police are unable to corroborate his story and release him. He is subsequently murdered by the drug dealer's associates.
- Happens a lot in Chinese/Hong Kong TV dramas. If set in the past, executions are done quite a few li away from the courts. So if anyone innocent happens to get the penalty that day, they better hope for a fast messenger on a horse before their head gets chopped off.
- An episode of Murdoch Mysteries has a scene like this, that drives the executioner into a depression:
Condemned Psycho: Hey old man, how does it feel killing an innocent?
Executioner: Don't make me laugh, murderer.
Condemned Psycho: Ooh, not me. The previous guy who claimed innocence all along, looking at you with puppy dog eyes. I did it.
- A sideplot in one episode of The Mentalist concerned a convicted arsonist that Rigsby put away in his days as an arson investigator. The arsonist gets shanked prior to the episode's opening because one of his kids died in the fire (child killers don't do well in prison). Then the other kid goes to find Rigsby to insist on his father's innocence, Rigsby reinvestigates, and an expert he consults determines that the fire was likely electrical and an accident. Thankfully some justice was done in this instance, as the landlord gets arrested for negligent homicide.
- Another episode involves the team searching for the actual killer and saving a man convicted on death row. To the team's heartbreak, he's executed before they can find the real killer — but the reaction of the suspects to the execution order exonerates the victim's husband, the prime suspect... and implicate his new wife. This is luckily averted due to a wake-up trick.
- On NYPD Blue, the squad investigates a child rape/murder in which they strongly suspect the boy's father, but don't have a strong case against him. They arrest a mute homeless street preacher in order to make the real suspect overconfident so that he'll slip up. Tragically, the decoy arrestee is too non compos mentis to realize that they know he's innocent, and commits suicide in his cell.
- Averted in an episode of he 1950's The Adventures of Superman. Supes flies the pardon from the governor to the prison where he arrives just as the switch is being thrown. He interposes his arm in the way to block the charge from going through the innocent man.
- Although, since he is "made of steel," shouldn't that have conducted the electricity?
- Of course not, the charge was dismissed...
- An episode of Strange Luck handles this trope in a surprising way. A murderer confesses to his crime on the same day that an innocent man is going to be executed for this same murder. The governor believes him and issues a pardon. A series of strange events (its in the title of the show, folks) keeps the governor from being able to just call the prison, and with time running out, the governor, the murderer, and the show's hero Chance Harper all rush to the prison to stop the death of an innocent man. A thunderstorm with heavy rain comes up, making the roads slick, and Harper crashes into a power pole on the way to the prison. This has two effects: power to the prison is cut just in time to stop the electrocution of the innocent man... and the real murderer gets killed by a falling power line.
- Very narrowly subverted on an episode of Grimm. A man attacked by two Wendigo shot one in self defense and was sentenced to death. When Nick and Hank find the evidence, they call the DA, who doesn't pick up her phone. When they finally get in contact with her, she hesitates before giving the order for the execution to stop while some of lethal injection had already been administered.
- In the last 7Days episode to air, a man is convicted of a murder and executed. Then, another man reveals he committed the murder, and publishes the missing security tape - after he fled into South America. Frank uses an emergency to take a copy of the tape with him into the past (the guy was a friend of his), but the data doesn't survive the travel. This is one of the few episodes to feature Deus ex Machina.
- In the third season of The Killing, Linden doesn't find out who the real killer is until it's too late for Seward.
- Very narrowly averted in one episode of The Flash. A man accused of murdering his wife is sentenced to be given the chair at midnight. He successfully pulls the guy out of the chair at super-speed at 11:59:59 PM. Then he directs the guard's attention to the presence of the man's still living wife (Who Flash had brought with him to the prison to exonerate her husband), and exposes the person who kidnapped her.
- Averted very narrowly in Blackadder when Edmund is pardoned (for having shot General Melchitt's favourite pigeon) between the syllables "F" and "ire"
- "Ironic" by Alanis Morrisette features the line "It's a death row pardon two minutes too late." Like much of the rest of song, it's not an example of irony.
- In Sophocles' Antigone, by the time Creon realizes he was being an asshole and Antigone should go free, she's already killed herself.
- In The Winslow Boy and its adaptations (based on a true story), though the defendant lives to be acquitted of his crime, the damage had been done; not only is the title character's older brother unable to pursue a job in the civil service due to his Oxford tuition being used up, his sister and her fiancé break up and his father's health has deteriorated because of the initial miscarriage of justice by the Royal Naval College. On the bright side, the case did set a legal precedent in UK law.
- In the fourth case of Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney: Trials And Tribulations Mia Fey defends already convicted murderer Terry Fawles for a second murder he apparently committed after a jailbreak. Over the course of the trial, Mia not only comes close to clearing him of the crime he's on trial for, but also the crime he got sent to Death Row for in the first place. Unfortunately, the real murderer is Dahlia Hawthorne, who has Fawles wrapped around her finger so tightly that he commits suicide on the stand rather than testify against her. Thankfully, Mia gets Dahlia later and when she pops up yet again, Phoenix has her number.
- Yomiel is struck and killed by the Temsik meteorite while escaping police custody in Ghost Trick. He's cleared of all charges six months later.
- In the Dilbert TV series, a death-row inmate is pardoned, but the warden then mistakenly presses the 'fry' button instead of the 'place call on hold' button.
- Briefly Played for Laughs in Duckman: Duckman is in a hurry to call the governor because he has evidence proving that a man about to be executed with the electric chair is innocent. Then he sees the light bulbs dim for a few seconds (implying that the sentence is being carried out) and says "Oh well, what's for breakfast?"
- Subverted in the Superman: The Animated Series episode, "The Late Mr. Kent": Clark and Lois find evidence clearing an innocent man from Death Row, but he's already been put into the Gas Chamber. Clark, being Superman, simply flies in, disperses the gas, and gets him out.
- A subplot of a Boondocks The Series episode had Huey desperately trying to get a wrongly imprisoned man a stay of execution before the deadline. He fails, but at the last second a bold of lightning cuts the power to the electric chair, and the governor's call gets through in time to save his life as a result.