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 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.
- 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 an arc of Dylan Dog. 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.
- Wonder Woman (1942): In one Golden Age Wonder Woman 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.
- 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...."
- 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.
- In The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins by Dr. Seuss, 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.
- 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.
- 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).
- The Twilight Zone (1959):
- The episode "Escape Clause" has this trope attempted to be invoked by the protagonist. 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.