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Acquitted Too Late

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Frank Drebin: Hey! Look at that. The missing evidence in the Kelner case! My God. He was innocent!
Ed Hocken: He went to the chair two years ago, Frank.
Frank Drebin: Well...
[hastily puts the evidence back into the folder and into the filing cabinet]
Frank Drebin: What's the use?
The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad!

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 get 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.

In some cases, it is long too late and those working to prove the characters' innocence know that they have since been executed and are merely working to posthumously Clear Their Name.

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. Related to Suspect Existence Failure, which is when a suspect's guilt is cleared because they've become the next victim. Usually the aftereffect of Vigilante Injustice.

As this is a Death Trope, unmarked spoilers abound. Beware.


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    Anime & Manga 
  • In one Ace Attorney manga story included in the Phoenix Wright anthology, a woman contacts Phoenix to ask him to look into the case of a woman who was wrongfully convicted of murder and committed suicide in prison. Phoenix manages to prove the woman's innocence using the evidence available.
  • One Piece: Zig-zagged when it came to Montablac Noland from Skypeia arc. Noland was an explorer who happened upon the Shandian tribe, befriended them and found out they had a city of gold. When he returned home, he told his king about this who wanted to see the land for himself. But when Noland lead him to them, the people and half the island was gone. The king thought Noland tricked him and had him executed for it. To further twist the knife, he also created a fairy tale out of it too that made Noland look bad. Many years down into the present day of the story, Noland's grandson, Cricket, finds the island of Jaya where the tale takes place and went on many diving expeditions in the hopes of proving his ancestor right. He finds some gold trinkets but no definitive proof of what happened to the gold city. It isn't until the Straw Hats come along, befriend him, him helping the crew get up to the sky islands, and Luffy finding and ringing the golden bell after defeating Eneru that Cricket realizes Noland was indeed telling the truth as he realized a powerful water geyser dubbed the Knock Up Stream pushed half of Jaya into the air in the past and the tribe along with it which explained why it disappeared. While nothing can be done about the stigma from the bogus fairy tale, this revelation at the least finally absolves Noland in Cricket's eyes.
  • Hidehiko in Princess Nine. His name still hasn't been cleared at the end of the series, but if his still-living real-life counterpart's reinstatement into Japanese professional baseball several years later is anything to go by...

    Comic Books 
  • Astro City: Silver Agent is convicted of murdering supervillain Mad Maharajah. Not only is it proven that Mad Maharajah not only framed Silver Agent, but he had also faked his death entirely. Moreover, due to time-traveling shenanigans, Silver Agent would go on to save the City repeatedly after his death, but still voluntarily went back to the past knowing he will be executed for fear of affecting the timeline. Upon learning what they had done, a statue of him is built with the inscription "To Our Eternal Shame".
  • In one arc in Daredevil the original White Tiger is falsely accused of murder and is killed during a struggle attempting to escape police custody. Matt only succeeds in finding the real killer and gets him confess what really happened afterward.
  • The Fantastic Four story "Mission for a Dead Man" has the Human Torch doing this for a thug that was a former bully of his, as he is executed for the one crime he didn't commit and gives him a posthumous letter asking him to clear his name to prove to his mother that in this case he was genuinely innocent.
  • 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.

    Fan Works 
  • Danganronpa: In Harmony's Wake: During Chapter 3, Fluttershy is accused of breaking the rules by allegedly stealing a ring from one of the stores, despite her pleas that she didn't, and is executed for it. However, during the investigation, Monoponi reveals that he discovered Fluttershy in fact did not steal, and the ring was planted on her, leading to her falsely being executed. So, he decides to consider her another "victim" that needs to be investigated, and find the culprit that tricked everyone.
  • A Diplomatic Visit: One hundred years before the present day, Gravon the griffon chef was sent to prison by a Kangaroo Court while Celestia was out of the country, and her efforts to use her rank to overturn his conviction were blocked by a pair of associated councils, who threatened to remove her from power if she did so. He subsequently died in prison of malnutrition before she could use the legal system to have him freed.
  • Hell and High Water plays with this. Sunset Shimmer and Rainbow Dash are assaulted and left for dead when it's assumed that they're the spearheads of a cyberbullying operation, with the former actually dying while the latter is set to become a double amputee. The two are returned to full health by way of Divine Intervention bringing Sunset back from the dead and granting her dark magic powers to heal them both (in exchange, Sunset will help revive a Dying Race). It takes a good while before people learn that they actually survived, during which the real cyberbullies are revealed, but only one of their killers is left remorseful when it turns out that they killed Sunset and Rainbow for no reason. The rest of the perpetrators are more concerned with hiding their involvement than anything else.
  • I'd Trade My Life For Yours:
    • The story begins with Kaede and Shuichi trying to convince the class that they were the killer. Shuichi is voted off by a margin of one and executed for Kaede's crime. It isn't until the fourth chapter that Kaede proves Shuichi's innocence to the class with the existence of a copycat crime.
    • At the end of the fifth trial, Monokuma executes Kokichi even though it is unclear if he killed Maki or if it was a suicide. Kokichi is found innocent when Maki shows up alive and well.
  • In the Winx Club fanfic "The Moments We Live For", Flora's father was executed for supposedly paring a preteen before the state found evidence clearing him. Flora and her mother had to move because practically everyone turned on them and were too prideful to apologize even after he was cleared.

    Film — Animation 
  • In Disney's Aladdin, Aladdin is arrested under Jafar's orders on charges of kidnapping the princess. When Jasmine confronts him about it and says it was all a big misunderstanding, Jafar apologizes profusely but says unfortunately his sentence (beheading) has already been carried out. In this case it's all a lie - the arrest was just an excuse, Aladdin is still alive, and Jafar still intends to kill him after he's served his purpose.

    Film — Live-Action 
  • Master of the Giallo 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.
  • There was no killer in Bodies, Bodies, Bodies. David's death, the film's inciting incident, happened because he tried to drunkenly film himself opening a champagne bottle with a kukri for a TikTok video and accidentally slit his own throat. Unfortunately, the last two surviving characters, Bee and Sophie, only learn this after everybody else had killed each other out of paranoid suspicion that David had been murdered and they were now caught up in a Slasher Movie scenario with one of them as the killer.
  • In The Cuenca Crime, the main characters are sentenced to 18 years in prison for murder (but released after doing 12). Their supposed victim is found alive in the 16th year.
  • In Hangmen Also Die!, the investigation by the Nazis determines that Czaka did not assassinate Heydrich. By this time, they have already killed him, however. To add insult to injury, they decide to close the case with Czaka as the official culprit in order to save face (having failed to uncover the real assassin despite the harsh reprisals).
  • In the Name of the Father: Giuseppe was exonerated, but only after he'd died as a result of his ill health, which prison exacerbated.
  • 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.
  • The central point of The Ox-Bow Incident. Posse lynches suspected cow rustlers; they learn of their error when they get back to town.
  • 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.
  • In The Poughkeepsie Tapes, the killer changes his whole M.O. and starts killing prostitutes in order to frame a cop, who is found guilty and executed. The true killer then makes it clear the day after the execution that the cop was innocent.
  • 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.
  • Shriek If You Know What I Did Last Friday the 13th: 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.
  • 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.

  • Agatha Christie:
    • Despite being the trope namer, And Then There Were None is actually not, strictly speaking, an example itself. The Ten Little Murder Victims plot (which it also named) means that one of the people on the island must be the killer U.N. Owen, and once somebody is found killed by U.N. Owen, they're cleared of suspicion of being him. It's also a subversion, since the real U.N. Owen is one of the "victims", having faked his death after the 'death=innocence' idea took hold.
    • In Murder on the Orient Express, it's mentioned that Ratchett is not only responsible for the death of Daisy Armstrong, but also a maid who was suspected of being an accomplice. She was eventually proven innocent, but only after she had committed suicide.
    • The basic premise of Ordeal by Innocence is that Jacko Argyle, who had died in prison after being convicted of murdering his adoptive mother, had an air-tight alibi; the person supplying the alibi was the detective in the book.
  • 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.
  • The Chrysalids: At some point before the story, Joseph Strorm accused his neighbor of keeping a "deviated" tailless cat, but the court process didn't move quickly enough for Joseph's liking, so he simply killed the cat. Then evidence turned up that tailless cats actually have a long and well authenticated history, leaving quite a lot of egg on Joseph's face.
  • In The Confession, Donté Drumm is executed for the crime of having killed Nicole Yarber. His exoneration does not occur until months after his death, a small comfort to his family.
  • 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.
  • In The Cutthroat, Isaac Bell sends a message out to all Van Dorn offices asking to look into killings similar to the ones he's investigating. One of the results was a doctor's wife whose husband was already arrested, tried, and executed for the crime. The detective who discovers this is rather shaken by the revelation.
  • 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 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.
  • 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 Morfin Gaunt 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 Morfin 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.
  • In Elizabeth Gaskell's novella Lois the Witch, set during the Salem witch trials, the title character is framed and executed for witchcraft. Her wealthy lover arrives from England too late to intervene, although by the time of his appearance, the town has come to its senses.
  • In the October Daye series, Rayseline plans this for October in Late Eclipses.
  • Second Chance Cat Mysteries: In book 1, it's explained that Detective Michelle Andrews used to be friends with Sarah when they were younger, until Michelle's father Rob went to prison for embezzlement and Sarah made some angry remarks in the heat of the moment about wishing he was dead; soon afterward, he would indeed die of a fast-acting cancer. After the two begin to repair their friendship, Sarah and her friends spend the next few books doing some investigations into the crime he supposedly committed, knowing that even if they do prove his innocence, it'll be this trope, but they feel it's worth it to help Michelle. In book 6, they succeed in proving he was framed, and the real culprit is arrested.
  • 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.
  • 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 was executed. Turns out he was telling the truth. Oh, and the colony? Roanoke Island.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Happens a lot in Chinese/Hong Kong TV dramas. If set in the past, executions are done quite a ways 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.
  • In the last 7 Days (1998) episode to air, a man is convicted of 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.
  • Averted in an episode of the 1950s 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.
  • Blackadder:
    • Averted very narrowly in "Corporal Punishment" when Edmund is pardoned (for having shot General Melchitt's favorite pigeon) between the syllables "F" and "ire".
    • In "Head", 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...
  • 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.
  • 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).
    • One episode had the plot 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).
  • Conviction (2016): In "A Different Kind of Death", Earl Slavitt is proven innocent only after he's been put to death. This was mostly due to the real killer's interference.
  • 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.
  • CSI-verse:
    • Occurs 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.
    • 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.
  • Plays a part in the Death in Paradise episode "In the Footsteps of a Killer"; eight years prior, a woman was arrested for murder and died in prison, as she was the only one of the pool of suspects who couldn't provide an alibi. However, the episode opens when a man the victim slept with on the night of the crime returns to the island to give her an alibi; the night he slept with the victim was the last day of his holiday on the island and he had an early morning flight out, with the result that he never realised she was in trouble until he returned. This new information leads to the team re-opening the case and determining that the true culprit had faked their own alibi.
  • Very narrowly averted in one episode of The Flash (1990). 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.
  • Very narrowly subverted on an episode of Grimm. A man attacked by two Wendigo shot one in self-defense and was sentenced to death because nobody believed his claim that he'd been attacked by monsters. When Nick and Hank find the evidence that the surviving wendigo is a cannibal killer, 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 the lethal injection had already been administered.
  • An episode of the Hawaii Five-0 remake has a variation. An ex-con falsely accused of murder escapes custody and succeeds in proving his innocence, but is killed by the real culprits in the process.
  • There’s an episode of Highlander where Duncan has evidence that clears a soldier who’s about to be executed, but he doesn’t make it in time-the guy is shot just as he’s arriving on the scene and shouting at them to stop.
  • In one episode of the show In Justice, a gentle mentally challenged 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. Afterward, we see 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.
  • In the third season of The Killing, Linden doesn't find out who the real killer is until it's too late for Seward.
  • 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 into 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 had been murdered in prison by the time the episode takes place. The survivor is later exonerated (the lab tech could be charged with felony murder for the former).
    • 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.
  • Law & Order: Special Victims Unit:
    • The second-season episode "Taken" starts off with a young 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 "Repression", 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. The ultimate vindication was that the daughter's hymen was intact.
    • An unusual variation comes in "Unstable", in which the critical death is not the innocent man, but the man who actually committed the crime. The innocent man remains alive, but with the real rapist dead, there's no way to prove his innocence, and he will have to serve out his sentence.
    • The same situation is narrowly averted half a season later, in "Confidential"; much like the earlier case, the real murderer is found after committing a similar crime, but is killed before he can be tried. Fortunately for the wrongfully convicted man, the dead man's lawyer breaks privilege, admits he confessed to her, and points the detectives to the evidence they need to prove that her client, not the man in prison, committed the murder.
    • In "Decaying Morality", a girl accuses a pizzeria worker of raping her. Due to lack of evidence, the detectives let him go, but the girl's father takes matters into his own hands by trying to beat a confession out of him, only to end up causing him to go into cardiac arrest. When it's revealed that the pizzeria worker didn't rape the girl note , the father is naturally devastated that he murdered an innocent man.
  • One episode of The Mentalist 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, and Abbott remarks that with the suspect dead, their bosses will never allow them to pursue any other leads. However, it turns out to be an elaborate trick. They were pretty sure that either the victim's husband or his new wife were guilty, so they faked the execution to gauge the reactions of the suspects, and Abbott deliberately dropped the comment about the case dying with the execution so that the real killer would think they couldn't be touched. Once Jane realized it was the wife, he planted the idea in the husband's head and then slipped a listening device in his pocket before sending the couple home. As predicted, the husband confronted the wife and she admitted what she'd done... at which point the FBI pulled up, arrested her, and then promptly called the governor to tell him what they'd heard. With the wife's admission on the record, the execution is halted and the innocent man released.
  • Monk, "Mr. Monk and the Other Woman." Grayson is the primary suspect in the early investigations, thanks to his file being burned. Stottlemeyer drops him off the suspect list when he's found dead in Monica's garage.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Power Rangers Ninja Steel: Ripcon is framed as a traitor by Madame Odius, and is subsequently destroyed in episode 12. In episode 21, nine episodes after his death, Odius gloats to Galvanax that Ripcon was never the traitor: she was. Unusually for this trope, it's not Galvanax who executed him - he was destroyed by the Rangers while trying to prove his innocence and get back on Galvanax's good side.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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!
  • Vienna Blood: In the second episode Max quickly realizes the mentally retarded man they initially arrest and charge for the brothel murders didn't do it, and Amelia is able to prove forensically that the blood found on his clothes is all from his job at a slaughterhouse. Unfortunately his name is already in the papers and a police sergeant intentionally sets him up for a Vigilante Execution by two vagrants he puts into the suspect's cell.
  • Possibly at the end of the Without a Trace episode "Two Families". The Victim of the Week was a man who believed that his death-row inmate son was innocent. The agents find the man, and the real killer, but the episode ends with them sitting in the office, waiting for a phone call to tell them if they've halted the execution.

  • "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; 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 
  • This factors into one of the optional side quests in the Dragon Age II DLC Legacy. Hawke and company learn the ultimate fate of Tethras Garen, one of Varric's distant relatives, who was convicted (a few hundred years before the time of the game) of murdering his own sister and sentenced to die in the Deep Roads. Some months after his conviction, it was discovered that the organized crime outfit the Carta was actually responsible for the murder, and the distraught family spent years trying to find him and bring him home. The Deep Roads being what they are, it's likely that he was dead before his innocence was ever brought to light; but if the quest is completed, his remains are located and given the traditional dwarven funeral rites.
  • 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. And after using time travel shenanigans, Yomiel is acquitted of treason but still sent to jail for attempted homicide of a little girl who was cooking yams in front of an open flame in the middle of nowhere with her parents nowhere to be found. The case is really ambiguous and Yomiel himself lampshades that the circumstances which led to him taking a little girl hostage were suspicious and disturbing to begin with. He still technically serves the full sentence for this crime, which cost him and his fiancée ten years of their lives.
  • In Mega Man X: Command Mission, Epsilon serves as the main antagonist and is labeled as Maverick due to the revolt he causes in Giga City. At the end of the game, with the revelation that the events were manipulated by Colonel Redips, and the fact Epsilon took measures to avoid human casualties, his Maverick status was posthumously deterred.
  • This can happen in Prison Architect. Prisoners on Death Row have a "clemency" percentage, which is the chance that they will be found innocent of their crime or have their sentence reduced. If you execute a prisoner who is later declared innocent, you'll be heavily fined and possibly fired. However, if their clemency was under 5% (or 10%, after researching Reduce Execution Liability) then you will not be punished.
  • Happens in Return of the Obra Dinn: One of the Formosan guards, Hok-Seng Lau, is executed by firing squad for the death of a passenger, but it's revealed later that said passenger was actually murdered by Second Mate Edward Nichols. Perhaps the wrongs are rectified in the Epilogue: although Lau's reward or estate can never be known or claimed, at least his executioner got fined £50 for his murder along with that of Fourth Mate John Davies and attempted mutiny.
  • One of the tasks the protagonist must perform in Veil Of Darkness is to clear the name of someone hanged for the murder discovered at the beginning of the game. The magistrate just wanted someone to pay for the murder and chose an innocent man, but this leaves the innocent man's spirit trapped in his body until he can be cleared. When the protagonist successfully proves the hanged man was innocent, he's able to move onto the afterlife and the actual murderer is hanged as well.

    Visual Novels 
  • Ace Attorney:
    • 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.
    • In Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney, the trial in which Phoenix lost his attorney’s badge involved a stage magician, Zak Gramarye, being accused of killing his mentor. Zak goes on the run to avoid the conviction, and in the last case of the game, his partner Valant admits that he staged their mentor’s suicide as a murder to implicate Zak out of jealousy, thereby exonerating him of any wrongdoing. Unfortunately, by this point, you’ve already found out that Zak was the murder victim in the game’s first case, which happens several months before the fourth one.
    • In Spirit of Justice, Dhurke Sahdmadhi is found innocent in the assassination attempt of his wife Amara and the murder of Justice Minister Inga a mere three days after his death (though the latter ends up being meaningless because he was Dead All Along while assumed to have been the killer; It Makes Sense in Context). However, within Khura'in culture there is the mindset that children do bear the sins of their parents, so exonerating Dhurke despite his death wasn't completely pointless, as his children would regain respect.
  • In Chapter 1 of Danganronpa V3: Killing Harmony, Kaede Akamatsu sets up a Death Trap to kill the mastermind by dropping a shot put ball on their head, accidentally catches someone else in it instead, is found guilty in the subsequent trial, and executed. In Chapter 6, the final chapter, it's discovered that while the victim did get caught in Kaede's trap (and Kaede was convinced it had succeeded), the falling shot put ball actually missed him entirely. The mastermind then snuck up behind him and clobbered him to death with an identical shot put ball to make it look like the trap worked. After all, she had to make sure the TV show didn't deviate from her script.

    Web Video 

    Western Animation 
  • 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.
  • 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 in 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?"
  • Robot Chicken:
    • One sketch has a man rush in to stop an execution at the last moment. He's in time, but everyone in the audience is disappointed, so they take a vote and decide to pretend he was too late.
    • Another sketch has a mouse being executed via mousetrap. Just after the trap springs shut and sends his head flying off, another mouse runs in announcing "The governor just called!"
  • 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 non-lethal example occurs in the Viva Piñata 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), and the basis for her trial to begin with (Joan's claims of being told by God she should defeat the English naturally was a massive threat which they had wanted to discredit with it).
  • Capital punishment was abolished in Britain after Timothy Evans was hanged for a murder which, it was concluded sixteen years later, had been 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
    T'was 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 was 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 raping and 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 from Mary's hometown of Marietta, Georgia and elsewhere calling themselves "The Knights of Mary Phagan" broke into the prison, kidnapped Frank, and drove him to the woods in Marietta where he was hanged by them with a crowd attending. Neither the real killer of Mary Phagan (a janitor at the factory named Jim Conley) 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 Ku Klux 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. Conley, in fact, had been initially arrested for murder but later became the star witness when he claimed it came from moving the body at Frank's request. His handwriting matched that on a note left near the body too (he claimed Frank dictated them). Given that he was black, this may have been the first time a white man was prosecuted in the South on this basis (antisemitism trumped anti-black racism here, it seems). A musical, Parade, was made about this case.
  • A military veteran named Tim Cole was arrested and convicted of raping a fellow student in 1985 in Lubbock, Texas and sentenced to 25 years in prison. He died in prison of an asthma attack in 1999. The rape victim realized her mistake and told police that her attacker was smoking, and Tim could not smoke because of his asthma. 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 on February 6, 2009 - nearly ten years after his death - a Texas district court judge announced "to a 100 percent moral, factual and legal certainty" that Timothy Cole did not commit the rape. The judge reversed the conviction and ordered Cole's record expunged. A commission was also established to review past convictions that might have been wrongful and propose criminal justice reforms that could help prevent future occurrences. Legislation passed to provide monetary compensation and free college tuition for any future prisoners exonerated.
  • Patrick "Giuseppe" Conlon, one of The Maguire Seven died in prison in 1980. Eleven 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.
  • The notorious Central Park Jogger case. On April 19, 1989, investment banker Tricia Meili was brutally attacked in New York City's 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 Meili (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 had been committing a lesser crime 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 infamous crimes in New York history can never be prosecuted and that 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 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 Jr. was wrongfully convicted at age 14 for the murder of two white girls in Alcolu, South Carolina, in 1944 and was sent to the electric chair some 80 days later. Seventy years after he was executed, a judge ruled that he had not received a fair trial, as he was not effectively defended and his Sixth Amendment right had been violated, and executing a 14-year-old boy was extremely cruel. The only ones disappointed by the overturning of the ruling were the families of the murdered girls. Nowadays it's widely believed that the George Burke Jr (who's father was a manager at the local sawmill) was the real killer.
  • Lena Baker was convicted in 1945 of the murder of an abusive, alcoholic white man that forced her into a sexual relationship and is the only African American woman to be executed by the state of Georgia by electric chair after being convicted by an all-white, male jury, but wasn't pardoned until 60 years later in 2005.
  • 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. His pardon paved the way for the Turing Law, which pardoned tens of thousands of gay men convicted under similar circumstances.
  • Oscar Wilde was convicted of gross indecency in 1895. Two years in prison were too much for him as he died 3 years after his release. He was posthumously pardoned in 2017 courtesy of the Turing Law.
  • 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 Massachusetts issued a proclamation that Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti had been tried unfairly and with prejudice. While it's possible they were actually the killers, they certainly didn't get a fair trial… always a warning sign when the judge says in court that the defendant, even if not guilty, would "nevertheless [be] morally culpable because he is the enemy of our existing institutions". The evidence was conflicting, but the majority of historians and investigators feel the pair were innocent. However, an associate of theirs later said Sacco was there, meaning he may have been involved but Vanzetti wasn't. In one account, it was Sacco who'd actually shot the men, though both were involved in the robbery (Vanzetti would also be liable due to felony murder if true). As both were part of the Galleanist anarchists, who had committed a number of bombings, it's also been speculated that US law enforcement prosecuted them to get at the group more than due to any evidence.
  • While it's never been absolutely proven he didn't commit the crime, Cameron Todd Willingham's guilt was thrown into serious question shortly before his execution when experts discovered that much of the scientific evidence that had convicted him was invalid (he was convicted of murder by arson; fire scientists had determined that much of the "science" commonly used to establish arson was based on myths, and it was that supposed science on which the conviction was based).note  Texas Governor Rick Perry refused to grant a stay of execution and Willingham was executed on February 17, 2004, despite the testimony of experts saying the conviction was almost certainly faulty; at the very least, he almost certainly should have been retried with the new evidence presented at trial.
  • This is one of the reasons Italy has banned the death penalty: a wrongfully imprisoned man can still be released, but a wrongfully executed man cannot be resurrected. And when The European Union was formed abolition of the death penalty was made a prerequisite for entry.
  • The Governor of Illinois commuted all existing death sentences to life imprisonment without parole, after outside investigations discovered thirteen prisoners had been wrongfully convicted. The death penalty was abolished by the state legislature shortly thereafter.
  • Nikola Tesla was judged by the Supreme Court to own the patents used in Marconi's radio… six months after he died in poverty, a fate he likely could've avoided if Marconi hadn't been so bold about unleashing upon the world an invention which infringed on his patents.
  • The Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) was ultimately found to have acted appropriately after the 2009 undercover video controversy but, by then, they were being dissolved due to the fact they had grants revoked.
  • Jean-Paul Alata's book about Sékou Touré, the dictator of Guinea, was allowed in France in 1981, four years after Alata's death from a stroke.
  • On September 5, 1805, a group of five marginals were beheaded for murdering a group of cattle traders after skeletons were found in Vittel, France. It was discovered after that these bones came from a 9th-century graveyard.
  • On October 9, 1811, in France, Maximilien Flament was beheaded for the arson of the mayor's barn. Six years later, the true culprit was discovered.
  • On December 23, 2003, thirty-seven years after Lenny Bruce's death, New York Governor George Pataki granted him a posthumous pardon for his obscenity conviction.


Video Example(s):


Missing Evidence

While cleaning his desk after being fired for an embarrassing gaffe, Lt. Drebin recovers a key piece of evidence a little too late.

How well does it match the trope?

5 (12 votes)

Example of:

Main / AcquittedTooLate

Media sources: