Acquitted Too Late

A character has been wrongfully convicted of a capital crime, or their peers have been convinced of their guilt/wrongdoing. Their 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 the 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. Or in a non-legal case, something that makes the discovery of this character's innocence moot has already occurred.

And Then There Were None is the Trope Namer.

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 

     Comic Books 
  • 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.

  • The movie The Life of David Gale. The victim had actually committed suicide. David Gale, an anti-death-penalty activist with a history of depression, framed himself for her murder and deliberately withheld the evidence proving his innocence until it was too late to save him, as an attempt to politically sabotage the death penalty by guaranteeing that an innocent man (himself) would be executed.
  • Played for laughs in the first The Naked Gun movie:
    Frank Drebin: Hey! The missing evidence in the Kellner case! My God! He really was innocent!
    Captain Ed Hocken: He went to the chair two years ago, Frank.
  • Required by law in every Giallo (violent Italian whodunit, featuring amateur sleuths, buckets of gore, and high body counts) ever made. Warning: Italian splatter-opera spoilers galore!
    • Master of the genre, Dario Argento, did it with his first ever giallo, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. The prime suspect takes a fatal plunge from a window but it turns out that he was actually protecting the real killer: his crazy knife-wielding wife.
    • Dario Argento again, but this time bizarrely inverted. In Tenebre, the trope appears to be played straight about halfway through, when a mysterious figure kills the main suspect with an axe to the head. The bizarre inversion stems from the fact that the victim was the original serial killer, but his killer is a copycat who wants to throw suspicion off both of them while he commits some murders of his own. Yeah, Dario has some whacky ideas sometimes.
  • The central point of The Ox Bow Incident. Posse lynches suspected cow rustlers; they learn of their error when they get back to town.
  • Supposed to happen in the movie within a movie in The Player. The writer of Habeas Corpus insists that the main character gets acquitted, but too late. By the end of the movie, however, it's changed to an ending where the acquitted is (ridiculously) saved.
  • Happens in Pan's Labyrinth when the villain finds two men with guns he accuses of being rebels and brutally beats to death, despite their protests that they were only hunting rabbits. Inspecting their bags afterwards proves their claim was correct.
  • Shriek if You Know What I Did Last Friday the Thirteenth: Parodied in the I Know What You Did Last Summer segment when one of the teenagers flashes back to his own sin. His older brother, who's on death row, handed him a letter and asked him to pass it on to the Governor because it would prove his innocence, but his little brother was too much of an asshat to do it on time.

  • 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 row has been convicted of 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 exonerated. 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 for 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 didn'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.
  • In the October Daye series, Rayseline plans this for October in Late Eclipses.
  • In To Kill a Mockingbird, Tom Robinson ends up being found guilty, despite the best efforts of Atticus to try to convince the juries not to convict him because he's an African American. Atticus tries to get a re-trial, but Tom is killed while trying to escape prison before he can.

    Live Action TV 
  • The Twilight Zone (1959) 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 wrongly convicted 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 hanged himself in prison, which is what prompts the detectives to re-investigate. They manage to free the other one though (it was loosely based on the West Memphis Three, who have now been freed but were still imprisoned at the time).
    • 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 (this bears a strong resemblance to the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, convicted of murdering his daughters through arson but which may have been just an accident-he was put to death in 2004).
  • 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 other inmate 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 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 began with an ex-cop convicted for murdering his wife (another cop who really got around) getting stabbed 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 vilified 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 exonerated.
    • 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 the murder of a priest and sentenced to death. 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. In keeping with the show, the end clearly reveals that he really was innocent.
    • 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.
  • 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 Seven Days 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"
    • The second Blackadder thinks he is himself responsible for this when he reschedules Lord Farrow's execution from Wednesday to Monday so he can have the rest of the week off, only for the Queen to pardon Farrow on Tuesday. Fortunately, Baldrick had got it wrong as usual and beheaded Lord Ponsonby instead. Unfortunately, the Queen wants to pay Ponsonby a visit...
  • An episode of the Hawaii Five-0 remake has a variation. A man falsely accused of bank robbery escapes custody and succeeds in proving his innocence, but is killed by the real culprits in the process.
  • Crossing Jordan inverted this. Jordan's father brings together the staff from the medical examiner's office to reenact a murder investigation from The '60s. After acting out the investigation, they realize that modern technology could have made the final step and identified the culprit. So, they do that and discover the murderer was the detective investigating the murder. They decide to go after the man, only for the elder Cavanaugh to inform them he died a few months before the reenactment.

  • "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.

    Video Games 
  • 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.

     Western Animation 
  • 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 The Boondocks 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 bolt 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.
  • A non-lethal example occurs in the Viva Piņata episode "Candibalism". When Fergy is declared guilty of being a cannibal (he ate a life-sized chocolate bunnycomb after trying to pass it off as his cousin), he gets catapulted to the moon. Right after he's sent flying, a piece of paper flutters down...which turns out to be a receipt for a life-sized chocolate bunnycomb. Fortunately for Fergy, the moon happens to be full of sweets, so it's not a total Downer Ending.

    Real Life 
  • Joan of Arc was found innocent by the court... 25 years after she was burnt at the stake. The vilifications continued for a long time in England, though, and for good reason (i.e. Joan fought for France, who was England's nemesis during the Hundred Years' War).
  • World War II Alfred Jodl was acquitted six years after his execution.
  • Capital punishment was abolished in Britain after Timothy Evans was hanged for a murder which, it turned out sixteen years later, was committed by the serial killer John Christie, his landlord, who was a major prosecution witness against him at trial. Commemorated in the folk song "Go Down, Ye Murderers":
    They sent Tim Evans to the drop for a crime he didn't do
    'Twas Christie was the murderer, the judge and jury too
  • Derek Bentley was pardoned in 1998 for inciting the murder of a police officer, for which he hanged in 1953. In contrast to this, the actual killer (who was underage and thus couldn't be hanged) got off with only ten years.
  • Jamie Macpherson actually was guilty, but he still had a pardon coming when — according to legend — the townspeople, seeing the messenger, decided to deliberately set the clock ahead by fifteen minutes so they could hang him anyway. Bit of a subversion, that.
  • In 1913, Leo Frank, the Jewish superintendent of a pencil factory in Atlanta, was convicted of murdering 13-year old Mary Phagan, one of the factory's workers, based on what would later turn out to be false testimony (by the prosecution's star witness, who in fact was the real killer). He was sentenced to death, but when suspicions arose that he was innocent, the governor commuted his sentence to life to allow for further investigation. However, even as concrete evidence that Frank was innocent surfaced, a group of men calling themselves "The Knights of Mary Phagan" broke into the prison, kidnapped Frank, and took him to the woods where he was lynched. Neither the real killer of Mary Phagan (a janitor at the factory) or the killers of Frank (who turned out to be some of Georgia's most prominent citizens) were ever arrested, and the incident resulted in a resurgence of the Klan. In 1986, 71 years after his murder (and 73 after Mary Phagan's) and based off the testimony of a now-elderly eyewitness who had seen the real killer carrying the victim's body, the state of Georgia granted Leo Frank a posthumous pardon.
  • Timothy Cole was arrested and convicted of rape in 1985 in Lubbock, Texas and sentenced to 25 years in prison. He died in prison in 1999. After the statute of limitations on the crime had run out, the real rapist confessed to the crime. DNA testing proved Cole was innocent, and he was officially pardoned in 2009, nearly ten years after his death.
  • Patrick "Giuseppe" Conlon, one of The Maguire Seven died in prison in 1980. 11 years later, it emerged that a confession was beaten out of him and that evidence was withheld that would have acquitted the seven. Worse still, he had only been in England to help out his son, Gerry, one of The Guildford Four. Gerry was released in 1989, his conviction having been quashed. Their story was the basis for the film In The Name Of The Father.
  • On April 19, 1989, a young woman was viciously attacked in Central Park—raped, beaten, and left for dead. Five teenagers who had been harassing other people in the park that evening were soon arrested and charged with the crime. Despite no DNA evidence, no identification made by the victim (she survived, but could not recall the attack in detail), and most damning, a time frame that showed that the boys could NOT have attacked the woman—ironically, because they were attacking someone else at the time—all were convicted. A little over a decade later, a man serving a life sentence for another crime confessed that he had attacked the jogger, and that he'd done so alone. Only one of the five was still in prison while the rest had served their time and been released. Despite their convictions being overturned, it is their unanimous belief that the entire experience has ruined their lives. Adding insult to injury, the statute of limitations has expired, meaning that the real perpetrator of one of the most notorious crimes in New York City history can never be prosecuted, and that the jogger, Tricia Meili, will never see proper justice done on her behalf. A thoroughly gross miscarriage of justice all around.
  • An example that does not involve capital punishment was the trial against Arthur Andersen LLC for their destruction of the files relating to Enron. To establish obstruction of justice, it was necessary for Arthur Andersen to knowingly and corruptly persuade their employees to destroy the documents — the Supreme Court held that they must be conscious that they were destroying the files illegally. The thing was, however, that Arthur Andersen was not aware that they were destroying the files illegally, yet the jury was originally instructed that "even if petitioner honestly and sincerely believed its conduct was lawful, the jury could convict" and therefore convicted Arthur Andersen. The Supreme Court later reversed the conviction, but it was too late. Arthur Andersen went from one of the largest auditing firms to practically going out of business.
  • The so-called witches of Salem were only officially proclaimed innocent some 300 years after their execution.
  • One warden of Sing Sing wrote in his book 20,000 Years in Sing Sing that when he worked under another warden, a pardon arrived and he raced to the gallows but found it had arrived minutes too late. He said he never told the warden that it had arrived.
  • Caryl Chessman's last execution stay came late because the secretary misdialed the prison phone number.
  • In 1992, the late Pope John Paul II said that the way by the Catholic Church judged the scientific positions of Galileo Galilei was completely wrong. It took over three hundred years for Galileo's judgment to be overturned.
  • In 1124, Henry I ordered that the right hands (or, in some cases, testicles) of 94 mint workers be amputated because of reports that they were replacing silver with tin in the coins. Modern studies have failed to support the accusations.
  • Meir Tobianski was acquitted one year after being shot for treason.
  • François Mourmand, one of the Outreau defendants, hanged himself in prison before being able to be acquitted three years later.
  • George Stinney's conviction was overturned 70 years after his execution for the murder of two white girls (he was African-American).
  • Alan Turing was pardoned for indecency in 2013 by the Queen herself. He killed himself by eating a cyanide-laced apple in 1954 because he was sentenced to forced chemical castration and lost his livelihood due to the conviction.
  • British record producer Joe Meek won a lawsuit filed against him for allegedly copying "La Marche d'Austerlitz" in the song "Telstar" a few months after his suicide.
  • In 1977 the governor of Massachussets admitted that Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti had been tried unfairly and with prejudice, and the only reason he would not pardon them was that it would imply they were guilty of the robbery and two murders they had been executed in 1927.
  • This is one of the reasons Italy has banned death penalty: a wrongfully imprisoned man can still be released, but a wrongfully executed man cannot be resurrected.