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Anime and Manga
- One installment of Golgo 13, "One Minute Past Midnight", plays with this trope; the target is a Death Row prisoner who is remarkably calm about his upcoming execution. For good reason; he's a corrupted ex-CIA agent who has enough blackmail material on the CIA that they're arranging for the state governor to grant him a last minute reprieve. The brother of one of his victims hires Golgo to kill the prisoner, he accomplishes this by assassinating the governor in his mansion, just before he can grant clemency. The CIA agent in the room with the governor can't give the failsafe code on his behalf, and despite the prisoner's suddenly frantic pleas, the execution is carried out on time.
- Samurai Champloo subverts this in the episode "Beatbox Bandits", where Fuu and Jin are ordered to be executed unless Mugen delivers a parcel and comes back in time. In the end, just as Fuu gives up hope of Mugen appearing, his silhouette appears in the horizon...which turns out to be the annoying recurring comedy relief character (Fuu and Jin survive in the end though).
- All the way back in Action Comics #1, the very first heroic thing anyone ever saw Superman do was break into the governor's house (and we do mean break) to present evidence that an innocent woman was about to be executed and got the governor to phone in a reprieve, having found the real murderess in some unseen event.
- Happened once in Diabolik, with two twists: Diabolik deserved his death sentence, and he got a reprieve only because an anti-death penalty activist had pointed out that his trial before had been accidentally rigged by public opinion (as it's pointed out, at the time there was no evidence that Diabolik even existed, and the only witness was already on the verge of going crazy and thus was unreliable) and had to be redone in an attempt to get Diabolik to rot in jail (in the end Diabolik's trial is not redone, but by then Diabolik has already managed to break out again). This is a Justified example: Diabolik has had a death sentence hanging on him for years and the police, knowing his ability to break out of jail, keeps a guillotine ready to execute him immediately in case they capture him, so any reprieve will naturally come at the last minute.
- The narrator of Stephen King's The Green Mile reminds us frequently that this almost never happens — and, indeed, no pardon comes to save John Coffey, an innocent man, from the chair.
- In the movie Almost Heroes, we are introduced to Bartholomew Hunt as he is about to be executed then pardoned in this manner.
- The film Serenity has the lead characters facing down Alliance troops, waiting for orders to shoot them down. The antagonist, "The Operative", tells them to hold their fire when he sees security footage of the scientists who created the Reavers.
- Of course, it's worth noting that this was probably more of a reprieve for the troops.
- In The Mummy, Brendan Fraser's character is introduced as about to be hanged. And then he is hanged, but because his neck doesn't break, it gives the heroine time to bribe the warden, who has him cut down.
- Subverted in the 2005 Casanova starring Heath Ledger, where it turns out the papal messenger is a fake, and when the authorities find this out, all the main characters are obliged to make a run for it.
- Played straight in D. W. Griffith's silent movie Intolerance which interweaves stories set at different historical periods. In the 20th Century story, the hero is framed for murder, but the heroine finds a witness to his innocence on the morning of his execution. A frantic race against time ensues for the Governor to issue his pardon before he is hanged.
- Subverted in Manhattan Melodrama.
- Parodied in Top Secret!, where the Germans decide not to execute Val Kilmer's character at the last minute. Cut to the firing squad who's getting ready to aim and fire while the phone rings, and an old lady with a walker slowly inches her way towards it.
- Done at the end of the Bob Hope vehicle My Favorite Brunette, much to the disgust of the prison guard assigned to throw the switch on the electric chair. (Bing Crosby in a cameo.)
- Done in Big Damn Heroes style in The Player. One movie within the movie is an art film in which the heroine dies in the gas chamber at the end, even though innocent. By the end of the main movie, the director of the art film has become so corrupted by Hollywood that his little art film with a Downer Ending now has Bruce Willis rescuing Susan Sarandon from the gas chamber complete with snappy one liners.
- Villainous example in The Postman: Bethleham realizes that he has nothing to gain from executing Postmaster Ford Lincoln Mercury after The Reveal that Many of the postmen organizing resistance against him are working independently of the Reunited States Postal Service.
- In Reefer Madness: The Musical, Jimmy is about to be executed for a crime he didn't commit when Mae and Franklin D. Roosevelt come in with a presidential pardon. He wishes that they hadn't cut it quite so close.
- His Girl Friday features a reprieve arriving at the eleventh hour for Earl Williams, which the the Mayor and Sheriff try to bury in hopes of scoring political points before an election by executing a cop killer: the Mayor offers the messenger a sinecure in exchange for silence. He doesn't take it and turns up to deliver it again at an inconvenient time.
- The Front Page features a reprieve arriving at the eleventh hour for Earl Williams, which the the Mayor and Sheriff try to bury in hopes of scoring political points before an election by executing a cop killer. In this case, the Mayor explains that he can't accept the reprieve because Williams has escaped from their custody and offers him a night at a brothel on his dime. The Sheriff raids that same brothel ("for the family vote") and the reprieve winds up back in their hands in front of witnesses.
- In the legend of Damon and Pythias, Pythias returns for his own execution just in time to save Damon, who had volunteered to act as a hostage for him.
- Played textbook straight in George Eliot's Adam Bede, where Hattie's pardon is conveyed at the last minute by Captain Donnithorne — on horseback, no less! The only excuse is that the novel was written in 1859, and was Eliot's first.
- Subverted in the beginning of the Discworld book Going Postal. As Moist von Lipwig is about to be hanged, when the Patrician's carriage pulls into the square. As Moist desperately stalls on his last words a messenger comes out, and struggles to make his way through the crowd as the hangman starts to become annoyed that he doesn't have the decency to keep it short. Eventually Moist points out the messenger, who does bring a message from the Patrician.... Which is that they haven't got all day, and that the hangman should get on with it already. Fortunately for Moist the Patrician has work for him, and the hangman was already under instructions to fake his death.
- One of the Vorhalas brothers was expecting this when Regent Vorkosigan showed up to his brother's execution in Barrayar. Unfortunately, Aral was there because he believed that he needed to witness the execution with his own eyes.
- Saga of the Jomsvikings: After ten Jomsvikings have been beheaded, Jarl Erik is so impressed by their death-defiance that he takes the rest of the troop into his own service.
- The Saga of Grettir the Strong: Having captured Grettir, the farmers of Isafjord prepare to hang him. They have already erected a gallows, when Thorbjorg, wife of the local chieftain Vermund, intervenes and uses her influence to save Grettir's life.
- Played with in Kurt Vonnegut's Mother Night. Howard J. Campbell awaits trial in Israel for being a Nazi propagandist. Campbell was simultaneously a spy for the US, and his lawyer tells him that if he can get his recruiter Frank Wirtanen to vouch for him, his case will be a slam dunk. Wirtanen sends a letter detailing Campbell's recruitment and subsequent communication of coded messages during his radio broadcasts, but Campbell abhors the idea of being spared death when he has lost interest in living, and hangs himself in his cell.
Live Action TV
- Subverted in the Cycling Tour sketch from episode 34 of Monty Python's Flying Circus. Mr. Pither is about to be executed by a Soviet firing squad. An officer is shown running toward the execution site yelling "Nyet!" (No!). He hands a paper to the firing squad officer.
FS Officer: A telegram? From the Kremlin! The Central Committee! It says..."Carry on with the execution".
- Also subverted in The Twilight Zone (1959) episode "Shadowplay". Henry Ritchie is about to be executed in the electric chair. Prosecutor Adam Grant has been convinced that Ritchie may be not guilty by reason of insanity and convinces the state governor to postpone the execution. The governor calls the execution chamber, but he's too late — Ritchie has already been killed.
- In Blackadder, a message gives Blackadder reprieve from death by firing squad, with a bit of a subversion... The message is from the firing squad and contains a last greeting to him. He's then saved by the trope played straight, but offscreen.
- This example may be the latest possible reprieve, given that the firing squad corporal gets as far as "Ready, aim, f—".
- Subverted in The West Wing, which looks at the issue from the point of view of the man granting the reprieve; after wrestling with the issue of whether to grant a Death Row triple-murderer a stay of execution for a weekend, and initially deciding not to, Bartlet eventually realises that he should — unfortunately, he realises this too late, and the man is executed.
- In the live action The Flash (1990) series, it was a genuine race against time to clear an innocent man before he was electrocuted in an hour. In the end, the Flash actually outruns the governor's telephone call and unties and pulls the man out of the chair before the volts zap him.
- Parodied in a Rutland Weekend Television sketch. Just before the condemned man is about to be executed a telegram arrives which reads "The execution is candelled" (sic). The prisoner insists that this must be a typo for "cancelled", but his jailors argue that it might mean the Governor wants the execution carried out by candlelight.
- An episode of the short-lived D. B. Sweeney series Strange Luck featured a mad gubernatorial dash to the prison to rescue a man about to be executed for a murder he did not commit, with the hero and the real murderer (who had confessed after years of a guilty conscience), following along behind. During the rush to the prison (the phones were out... it was raining heavily), the brakes on the hero's car give out and he slams into a power pole, snapping a high-tension power line. When the power line breaks, it simultaneously a) cuts power to the entire prison just as the switches are flipped to fry the innocent man and b) clips the real murderer, electrocuting him.
- The first episode of Tales from the Crypt, "The Man Who Was Death", had an inmate frantically pleading for time, stating that the governor would call while the narrator claims that it never happens. At the end, when the executioner is being strapped to the chair, he makes the same type of comments.
- Averted in an episode of Criminal Minds. A woman who had been involved with a serial killer, eventually killing their son, is about to be executed alongside the killer. Gideon suspects that her son is still alive and the team does a mad dash around the area trying to find him. The son is found but the woman convinces Gideon to let him live without knowing who his parents were, and both are executed.
- Another episode starts with the set-up for an execution (by firing squad, for a nice change of pace). As the condemned is being positioned and the shooters are raising their rifles, the executioner gets a phone call... telling him there won't be a reprieve, go ahead with the execution. This episode centers around a copycat who commits his first murder just as the original is executed.
- In one episode of F Troop Agarn is sentenced to death because he allowed a prisoner to escape and is therefore obliged to fill out the prisoner's sentence due to some Army law that undoubtedly only exists in TV. Just as the firing squad is assembled, O'Rourke arrives with the recaptured prisoner, meaning that Agarn no longer needs to be killed for the other man's crimes. Unfortunately for Agarn, Captain Parmenter accidentally says "Fire" (As part of a conversation) before dismissing the firing squad, so they shoot Agarn. Fortunately for Agarn, due to the poor quality of the men at Fort Courage, every single one of them misses him and hits the water tower instead.
- CSI did it in "The Execution of Catherine Willows", only to have the guy done in at the end anyway.
- Bones had an episode of it as well, played straight, even though the guy actually was a killer. In their attempt to prove him innocent, more bodies were found and his execution had to be called off while they were examined...which, as it turned out, was his plan all along.
- During a late point of the 1840 time line of Dark Shadows, Quentin Collins I and his cousin Desmond were about to be executed on charges of witchcraft, in fact Quentin's head was on the block, when Valerie Collins (really the extremely long-lived witch Angelique), the wife of "cousin from England" Barnabas Collins (really a time-traveling immortal vampire), arrived to stop the execution by producing a box containing the head of warlock Judah Zachary, who had been her master almost 200 years earlier and whose spirit was possessing Quentin's friend and main accuser, Gerard Stiles, in order to see Quentin killed so that he could gain control of the Collins fortune.
- In 'The Killing, Linden spends an entire episode attempting to gain one of these for an innocent man in his final day on Death Row. She fails.
- An episode of Grimm has a man named Craig Ferren who shot two brothers, one fatally, claiming they were cannibalistic monsters. Hank was the arresting officer, and as he was unaware of Wesen at the time, he assumed Ferren was crazy. When he hears about Ferren's impending execution, he realizes he was probably telling the truth. Hank and Nick know they can't prove that someone is Wesen, but they reason that if the brothers really were cannibals, the surviving brother would have continued the practice all those years with nobody the wiser and that there may be evidence that can convict him and exonerate Ferren. Ferren's execution is stalled as he is being injected with one of the three components of the lethal injection which is apparently inert by itself.
- Matlock featured an episode where a client (played by Stephen Baldwin) ends up exhausting his appeals despite a key witness recanting her testimony due to remembering more details about the night in question. The appeals judge informed them that the only way to overturn the conviction is if new physical evidence is found. Come the night of the scheduled execution, Ben's assistant is with the police who have cornered the real killer in a house. After a confrontation leaves the suspect dead, they discover that the gun he was holding was the previously-missing murder weapon, and the episode ends with Ben answering a call informing them of that fact, therefore halting the proceedings.
- In the song "Joe Bean", made famous by Johnny Cash, Joe Bean is convicted of a murder he didn't commit (though it's noted there are plenty of others he did). His mother goes to the governor to plead for clemency, mentioning that the date of the execution is Joe's birthday. At the last minute, the prison receives a message from the governor — wishing Joe a happy birthday, but confirming that the execution is to proceed.
Mythology and Religion
- In the Book of Genesis, Tamar disguised herself as a prostitute so she could perpetuate the lineage of her dead husband through her former father-in-law Judah. note Three months later, when Tamar's pregnancy started to show, Judah sentenced her to be burned to death for engaging in illicit sex. Tamar was Crazy-Prepared, though: when she solicited Judah by pretending to be a shrine prostitute, she took his seal, cord, and staff to hold as collateral until he could get her the goat that he promised her. Tamar sent a messenger to him with the items, saying that whoever owns these is the father. Judah realized what she had done, and spared her life.
- The Shadow: The villain of the episode "The Hypnotized Audience" tries to force the governor into issuing one of these — he needs more time to break his brother out of Death Row than his brother has left. The Shadow taps the phone lines, has Margo impersonate the warden's secretary, then tells the governor to go ahead and make the call. The villain's brother fries on schedule.note
- The ending of The Threepenny Opera. The finale goes on to note that the King's mounted messengers don't come very often. In fact, the finale is pretty much a savage parody of the whole trope because the main character has not only thoroughly deserved a hanging, but the ending is Lampshaded as an "obligatory happy ending" to the n-th degree — depending on the theatre, confetti, giant posters, fireworks and marching bands may be included in said Lampshade Hanging.
- The ending of Kordian has the protagonist about to be executed, when a courier brings in a pardon and frantically rushes to stop the firing squad. The play ends abruptly right before we find out if he succeeds or not.
- Kind of done in the game Jade Empire, where a giant "Siege Golem" lunges its ax downward at one of your party members, and stops right above the party member's head... because at that exact moment you defeated the person controlling the golem. It's not a messenger, but...
- Jowd gets at least three of these in Ghost Trick. Sissel rescues him from being killed by the electric chair (not in the chair, it explodes and kills him before he can sit on it) by helping him escape from prison. He's immediately recaptured by Cabanela. Lynne then goes to convince the Justice Minister to give him a reprieve. Unfortunately when she gets there he's died of a heart attack...but that's nothing Sissel can't handle. However, the minister won't give a reprieve until he's sure that his daughter hasn't been kidnapped, since he's being blackmailed into upholding the execution order. After all these hoops are jumped through, he's finally allowed to live another day as well as be out of prison for the rest of the night.
- In Metal Gear Solid 2 Olga steps in front of Raiden to stall Solidus for a few more moments before he can shoot him, since the moment Raiden dies, Olga's daughter will as well. He simply grabs her and kills her with a bullet to the head, but right when he aims to shot Raiden, the virus that had been placed in the main computer hours earlier finally becomes active, causing Solidus to keep him alive for the time being.
- Subverted in Futurama where Bender is about to be executed for being Santa Claus. The Planet Express crew burst in and all claim to be Santa (except for Zoidberg, who claims to be Jesus).
Mayor: "You aren't Santa Claus! You're not even robots. How dare you lie in front of Jesus!"
- And on The Simpsons, where the governor calls before it's "too late", to give Homer a message: He hopes he's a twitcher! He only lives because it turns out to be Reality TV Gone Horribly Wrong.
- In "The Late Mr. Kent," Superman saves an innocent man from the gas chamber so Clark Kent can produce the evidence that will send the real culprit there in his place.
- Happens with Huey's friend Shabaz in The Boondocks. Huey had written a letter to the Governor threatening to expose his gay love affair if Shabaz wasn't pardoned. In reality, Huey had no idea if that was true or not, but reasoned that "since 10% of people are gay, and 50% of people cheat on their spouses, this should have a 5% chance of success." Surprisingly, Huey's gambit works and Shabaz is pardoned.
- Subverted in a Robot Chicken sketch:
Man: The governor just called! This man is innocent!Crowd: Aww...Man: Alright. Show of hands, flip it anyway?Prisoner: Wait-wait, what!?Crowd: Yay! Let's go! Kill him!
- During The American Revolution, General George Washington handled low morale and rampant insubordination during a harsh winter (worse than Valley Forge, even) by sentencing eight men to be hanged for various charges. As the eight men had the nooses placed around their necks, staring into the already-dug graves, with the coffins ready and everything, a soldier suddenly stepped forward and pleaded for a reprieve. Seven of the eight were let go.
- Likewise, the Swedish king Gustavus III had sentenced all the participants of Anjala Conspiracy to death by beheading. As those fifty men stood at the scaffold 8th November 1790 and executioner had honed his sword, a messenger suddenly announced that all but two conspirators had been pardoned. One, Johan Hästesko, was beheaded — he had personally insulted the King — and another, Göran Sprengtporten, was banished from the realm — he had been an officer in the Russian army.
- 1947 saw this being done en-masse in Italy, as Italian public opinion opposed (and still does) death penalty and capital punishment for peacetime crimes was due to be abolished from 1948 onward, thus death sentences for peacetime crimes were being changed into long jail sentences. The one exception came for the authors of the Villarbasse massacre (the three who the police got before The Mafia, at least): clubbing ten people near to death and then throwing them in a well to die was seen as a Moral Event Horizon, so public opinion demanded them to be executed (and the Mafia hunted down the fourth one), and got their wish.
- Fyodor Dostoevsky and several other members of a subversive writer's group were sentenced to death by firing squad, only to receive a last minute reprieve from the Tsar. However this was an Invoked Trope as the reprieve had been decided the day before, with orders to leave it to the last moment. The idea was to both intimidate the writers while simultaneously creating gratitude to the Tsar.