A man sentenced to death. He may be the most vile person in existence, 12 jurors and the judge certainly believed it so, and the moment the word was said everybody got on their knees and praised the heavens.
There is a bit of a problem, though. The man cannot be killed. They have tried to hang him, and that didn't work. They have tried to shoot him, and that didn't work. They have tried to gas him, electrocute him, toss him from a very high building... nope, none of those methods worked. There may be mundane reasons (like sabotage or mis-preparation) or there may be supernatural reasons (like Nigh-Invulnerability or a prophecy protecting the man) at work.
So what other options remain? In a more fair world, maybe the court would continue trying to perform executions. At the very least, it would "downgrade" the sentence to the harshest type of imprisonment (most probably lifetime, or even a Longer-Than-Life Sentence) that the crime would require.
But Fiction Isn't Fair, and the judge decides that, if a man sentenced to die has survived fifty or sixty execution attempts, then he deserves to be released. No other circumstances, no other appeals, no pleas from an irate public nor a victim's grieving family will be heard — the man walks.
This was in fact the custom in historical periods, where surviving an execution was often seen as a pardon from God, but in modern times this line of thinking has fallen out of favor (this is why when this sentence is given, the judge will explicitly say that it will be applied "until (the one sentenced is) dead"). It would result in the sentence being commuted, probably life without parole instead of death, if the execution really couldn't take place. Sometimes this is justified in that a witness eventually recants or new evidence is brought to light — evidence that would not have been found had the accused been executed as planned and someone hadn't decided to go over the case again, since it was still open.
Related to The Man They Couldn't Hang, which is a character who survived a hanging.
This is an Artistic License – Law Trope in modern times.
- In one chapter of Franken Fran, a notorious criminal survives a ludicrous number of executions, including one involving several guards with chainsaws, so the courts eventually give up and let him go. Shortly after being released, he is struck by lightning and killed.
- In Return to Labyrinth, one of the Fire Gang (They can remove their heads without dying) is walking out of Jareth's dungeon and tells his friend he got off lightly with a simple beheading.
- In "The Joker Walks the Last Mile" (Detective Comics #64, June 1942), the Joker turns himself in and confesses to his crimes. He is sent to the electric chair and executed. The Joker's gang retrieves his body and revives him. Then Joker returns, but Batman can't arrest him because he has legally paid for his crimes. Joker then pretends to be an honest citizen while his mob carries on. The clown then tricks Batman into breaking the law, and nearly gets him arrested. However, Batman shows the police proof of the Joker's new crimes. Joker is forced to flee and return to hiding. Interestingly (jury's out on whether it was coincidence or deliberate), this dovetailed with a general editorial push to de-fang the Joker and have his crimes revolve around elaborate robberies or pranks instead of murder — the result being that, in-universe at least, the State not frying the Joker next time Batman brought him had some justification behind it.
- A three-issue arc running from Detective Comics #644-646 concerns Elmo Galvan, a bank robber who was sentenced to the electric chair after a failed heist that left four fatalities. He survived electrocution, but the jolt to his nervous system left him almost totally paralyzed, and under the law couldn’t be "executed" again. He was subsequently placed in a hospital charity ward, where a Bungled Suicide attempt actually restored his mobility and turned him into a living electric power battery, allowing him to enact his plan of revenge against the five officials who witnessed his execution.
- Dylan Dog: Groucho trying (and failing) to tell the Rule of Three example mentioned below on "Jokes" (although replacing "electrician" for "handyman" and the electric chair for a guillotine) is a Running Gag in one arc. The one time things have relaxed enough for him to complete the joke, the old lady he tells it to doesn't gets it, and then tries to kill him for it — turns out that she was the actual Big Bad of the arc.
- In one MAD strip, a prisoner who is sentenced to be Shot at Dawn is offered a "lottery execution," since the court is not sure of his guilt. Under the terms, the executioner, a blind man, will have a single shot to hit the prisoner. The prisoner asks if he'll go free if the man misses... but then it shows that the single shot will be fired from a massive cannon that is pointed at the prisoner, and the man supervising the executioner is guiding the executioner toward the fuse.
- In one Golden Age Wonder Woman (1942) issue, Wonder Woman's Arch-Enemy Baroness von Gunther is executed for murder but then pseudo-scientifically resurrected by her minions, who bribe the prison doctor to give them the corpse. It's then stated that she can't legally be executed again, and she doesn't even get sentenced back to prison when she's recaptured due to her already serving time and being "executed".
- Super Fuzz subverts this. The film opens with the main character about to be executed in the electric chair after several other methods of execution failed due to his super powers. The electric chair fails too.
- An orchestra conductor is known for being exceptionally terrible at his job. One day, he finds a guy and kills him. He's found guilty of murder and sent to the electric chair. But when his execution comes, he survives the electrical charge. Deciding this must be a sign from God, the authorities release him. However, he goes on to commit worse crimes, is arrested for each, sentenced to the electric chair, and survives each time (this can go on for as long as the listener is willing to listen). Finally, the executioner asks him how he keeps surviving the electric chair. He replies "Didn't you hear? I'm a bad conductor."
- A doctor, a lawyer, and an acceptable target are scheduled to die one day in the electric chair. The doctor pleads for his life: "I'm a doctor and if I'm freed, I'll treat people for free and maybe save lives." But they try to execute him, and it doesn't work. They let him go. The lawyer is next and pleads: "I'm a lawyer and if you let me go I'll work pro bono." The same thing happens, and he's freed. Then the acceptable target says: "I'm an electrician, and if you reconnect that loose wire over there...."note
- In The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins, the main character is sentenced to death for not being able to take his hat off in the King Derwin's presence (a new hat appears on his head every time he takes his old one off). But because the executioner refuses to kill anyone that's still wearing a hat, he has to let Bartholomew go.
- Discussed in Going Postal. When Moist is about to be hanged, he asks the executioner if it's true that "if a man isn't hanged after three attempts he's reprieved". The executioner replies that he's heard that rumor, but that since he's built his reputation on getting it right the first time it's never actually come up.
- Invoked in the sequel Making Money, after Moist confesses his former life as a con artist. Lord Vetinari uses this trope to explain why he gave Moist a second chance without losing face (in reality, Vetinari had the hangman fake Moist's death so he could make him a Boxed Crook).
- Subverted in The Last Continent, when the jailer tells Rincewind (who's been sentenced to hang for sheep-stealing) of a humanitarian tradition they have if the gallows fails to work three times — they let the prisoner go back inside and have lunch while they fix it. The jailer can't understand why Rincewind doesn't appreciate this; it's better than standing around in the sun waiting, isn't it?
- In the children's book The Five Chinese Brothers, based on an old Chinese legend, a set of identical quintuplets each have a different power. After one of them is sentenced to death for an Accidental Murder, they do repeated twin switches to prevent each method of execution — the iron-necked brother survives the attempted beheading, the brother who can hold his breath for hours survives the attempted asphyxiation, etc. Eventually, the judge declares that God is intervening on the first brother's behalf and pardons him.
- Implied in Ned Stark's speech to Bran after executing Will the deserting Night's Watchman in A Game of Thrones:
If you would take a man's life, you owe it to him to look into his eyes and hear his final words. And if you cannot bear to do that, then perhaps the man does not deserve to die.
- The Seven Chinese Brothers by Margaret Mahy plays with the same situation from The Five Chinese Brothers above, with one of the septuplets condemned to death under orders from Emperor Qin Shi Huang for helping the slaves build the Great Wall of China. Most of them have to do Twin Switches in order to survive execution attempts... until the sixth brother is ordered to be shot with arrows. The remaining six then have no choice but to go to the emperor so that they could be Together in Death... until the last brother becomes so depressed he has to Cry a River to wash away the emperor and free the surviving brother.
- The Way of Kings (2010): Someone who has committed a crime that is not quite heinous enough to warrant immediate execution will sometimes be strung up on a roof exposed to the full fury of a highstorm. If they survive, they can go free on the assumption that the Stormfather has judged them innocent.
- Averted in the Father Ted episode "Old Grey Whistle Theft" when Benson explains how his stolen whistle once saved his grandfather's life when he was put in front of a firing squad and all the bullets miraculously hit the whistle.
Ted: God Almighty! So he survived?
Benson: No, no. They just reloaded and shot him again.
- Downplayed in The Good Wife when a client of Diane Lockhart's scheduled to die by lethal injection suffers through at least two botched attempts because his prior drug use damaged the veins in his arms, causing the injection to fail. Diane manages to legally obstruct the third attempt (using veins in his feet), and the state gives up (he isn't released, however: his sentence is commuted to life in prison, the real outcome you'd see in a case like this).
- Raising Hope opens with the execution of Hope's birth mother Lucy (a Serial Killer), in the electric chair. However, it's soon revealed that the electric chair didn't kill her (at least not permanently), and she woke up on the gurney being wheeled out of the execution chamber. She knocked out the guards and attempted to escape, and she was actually granted release because they couldn't kill her.
- Tales of the Gold Monkey: One of the backstory details of "Bon Chance" Louie is that he was given a pardon because the guillotine didn't worked.
- In Torchwood: Miracle Day, in which humans all over the world suddenly stop dying, notorious child-rapist and child-murderer Oswald Danes is released on a legal technicality because the death sentence carried out on him was passed but didn't work.
- The Twilight Zone (1959):
- The protagonist of "Escape Clause" attempts to invoke this trope. See, the man had made a Deal with the Devil and obtained immortality, through which he had done an increasing number of death-defying stunts which had escalated to the point he went and committed a crime (killing his wife) with full intent to get sent to the electric chair. Unfortunately, the man's lawyer managed to get his sentence reduced to life in prison, and knowing he will eventually Go Mad from the Isolation which will come from living centuries behind bars, the man decides to invoke the titular clause and have the Devil come and take his soul already.
- In "Dust", Luís Gallegos survives his execution by hanging because the rope breaks at the precise moment that he falls. This is the moment that everybody in town decides (on top of everything else that has happened throughout the episode that was making them undecided about whether following through with this whole charade was actually a good idea) to let him go.
- The Twilight Zone (2002): The story "The Executions Of Grady Finch" features the titular man sentenced to die because of a murder charge that he keeps insisting he's innocent of, and every attempt to execute him (electrocution, lethal injection, gas, and the victim's irate son pulling a gun on him and trying to shoot him) is stopped by Divine Intervention prefaced by Finch hearing a ghostly voice saying "not yet!" Finally, after about a dozen attempts, Finch's lawyer is able to convince the court to review the case and a witness recants his statement, and the result is that Finch is given a "not guilty" veredict. Right after being set free, Finch finally musters up the courage to confesses to his lawyer that he was the murderer and walks out of the courthouse... and this is the moment when he hears the divine voice whispering "now!" and he's crushed by the courthouse's statue of Nemesis (the goddess of Vengeance) falling on him.
- The song "He who didn't shoot" by Vladimir Vysotsky tells a story of a WWII soldier falsely accused of treason and sentenced to execution by firing squad. By some miracle (and also due to the fact that one person in the squad did not shoot) bullets only injure him non-lethally, and the rules say that the attempt should not be repeated, so he is sent to a hospital instead and later returns to fighting. There was no such rule in the time of WWII, but Vysotsky needed a way to let his character off the hook, and borrowed the old, pre-revolutionary rule.
- Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc: On the route to the good ending, Makoto is falsely convicted of killing Mukuro, but his execution fails due to Alter Ego's interference and possibly Makoto's own luck. When Monokuma discovers Makoto is alive, he plans on executing Makoto again. Luckily, Kyoko manages to convince Monokuma that doing that would amount to breaking the rules and undermine his belief that despair would kill hope, enabling her to gain a chance to retry the previous trial and expose the mastermind.
- Played straight in Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair. When Akane breaks the rules by attacking Monokuma, Monokuma attempts to summarily execute her as punishment, but Nekomaru ends up Taking the Bullet for Akane. Since Nekomaru wasn't the intended victim, Monokuma has to rebuild him as a robot, but ends up letting Akane off the hook, saying Nekomaru was punished in her stead. Later, after Akane tries to attack Monokuma again, "Mechamaru" shields her and his robot body takes no damage from Monokuma's attack.
- People who survived hanging were granted pardons several times throughout British history, most famously Anne Greene.
- Averted in the late 1940s U.S. Supreme Court case Louisiana ex rel. Francis v. Resweber. The petitioner had been sentenced to death for murder, but the electric chair failed to work properly. He argued it was double jeopardy and cruel and unusual punishment to try it again, but a majority of the Court held that it was an accident and the original sentence was to be carried out. Note that this was explicitly because of a mechanical failure. Had the chair functioned properly, his defense would have held a lot more water, as repeated functional executions are considered cruel and unusual punishment.