Follow TV Tropes


Last-Minute Reprieve

Go To

Last-Minute Reprieve is a situation in which our brave hero is facing death on the gallows. Suddenly, a messenger or Courier gallops in to inform everyone he's been pardoned Just in Time.

The gallows can be replaced with a firing squad, an electric chair or lethal injection in modern settings. Similarly, the messenger on horseback can be replaced with a telephone call from the mayor, governor or other Reasonable Authority Figure.

Now a Discredited Trope that is subverted more often than not. Sub-Trope of The Pardon. Compare Acquitted Too Late. See also The Cavalry for other occasions when someone shows up to save our heroes in the nick of time.


    open/close all folders 

    Anime & 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 on the horizon... which turns out to be the annoying recurring comedy relief character. Fuu and Jin survive in the end, but just by being giving an opportunity to flee.
  • The Rising of the Shield Hero has the deposed king consort of Melromarc, and the former first princess Malty, exposed in a plot to sunder the four Legendary Heroes and make war with neighboring realms. Queen Mirellia sentences these two to death by guillotine for such treason. However, the Shield Hero intercedes one moment before the blades drop to have their punishments commuted to demotion to vassals, and be renamed Trash and Bitch, respectively. The Queen concurs and the condemned are spared.

    Comic Books 
  • 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.
  • Infamously happened to The Joker in the graphic novel Devil's Advocate, where Batman moved Heaven and Earth to prove he was innocent of a specific murder that, for once, Gotham refused to let him insanity-plea his way out of. After the call comes in, it almost looks like the clown's already been fried... only for everyone to realize he just fell asleep in the seat.
  • Tintin:
    • Played for Black Comedy in The Broken Ear. Tintin is framed as a revolutionary and sentenced to death by firing squad, only to be saved when an officer rushes in with news that General Tapioca has been overthrown and Tintin can thus go free. As he is being untied another officer rushes in with news that Tapioca has defeated the revolution so Tintin will have to face the firing squad after all. Fortunately their rifles have been sabotaged, leading Tintin and the commander of the firing squad to share a friendly drink while they wait for the rifles to be fixed. By the time the rifles have finally been fixed the two men have had quite a few more drinks and are bombed out of their skulls, and the revolutionaries really have won. Tintin wakes up the next day to find he's a hero of the revolution with no idea of how that happened.
    • Averted in Tintin and the Picaros when the Thompson twins are due for the Firing Squad. Our heroes help the Picaros launch a coup, but once they take over they find the phone lines have been cut between the palace and the execution ground, so everyone has to rush over there for a Big Damn Heroes moment.
  • Subverted in Judge Dredd. One perp, who is incapable of passing a lie detector even when he's completely honest, asks Dredd to look into his case again the night of his execution. Dredd does indeed find evidence that he is innocent of the particular murder he's about to be executed for, but the real culprits end up giving evidence that he was guilty of other murders that warranted the death penalty. Dredd stops the execution, informs the condemned man and orders the execution to carry on.
  • Star Wars: Doctor Aphra. Having been awarded three demerits, Imperial officer Magna Tolvan is automatically sentenced to execution. As she's standing before a firing squad of stormtroopers, the long-delayed paperwork for her promotion comes through; she's been transferred to a position that entitles her to four demerits before she can be executed, so the execution is cancelled. She then awards the commander of the firing squad a demerit point. Unfortunately it's his third...

    Fan Works 
  • The Mountain and the Wolf: As Jon and Grey Worm are clashing over what to do with the Lannister prisoners (Grey Worm wants them executed, Jon wants to wait until Daenerys returns), the Wolf arrives to get both to agree... by butchering the soldiers himself in the name of making Daenerys The Dreaded. Grey Worm orders them spared, less out of pity than the sheer hatred being approved of by the Wolf. Once Daenerys does return, the Wolf brings up the subject again and is so enthusiastic about how best to murder the soldiers to make sure everyone understands Daenerys is an iron-fisted tyrant willing to burn a city to ensure its compliance that Daenerys pardons the lot of them just to spite him.

    Films — Animated 
  • An unusual variant occurs in Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas, where it's the villain who gives the reprieve: Eris interrupts Sinbad's execution, which he accepted to save Proteus (who had pledged his own life in his place if Sinbad failed to return with the Book of Peace MacGuffin), right before the sword comes down on his neck. She rages at him for proving her wrong about his character, as she had assumed he was lying when he claimed he would return to be executed if he didn't get the Book from her. When he points this out to her, she's forced to concede defeat and give it back.
    • Immediately before this, Sinbad himself interupts Proteus's execution via cutting the blade off the executioner's axe, so he can take his friend's place in failure. The executioner then has to draw his sword for Sinbad's turn on the block, only to lose that too when Eris intervenes.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • In My Way, a Korean war movie about two friends, Korean and Japanese prisoners were going to be executed for fighting amongst each other in the Soviet Union. However, a messenger came to alert that Nazi Germany has invaded the Soviet Union, sparing them from a quick death.
  • 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.
  • 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 Julia Roberts 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.
  • The Front Page features a reprieve arriving at the eleventh hour for Earl Williams, which 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.
    • Likewise in the 1940 remake His Girl Friday. This time 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.
  • Thunderpants. After his fartillery accidentally kills someone, Patrick Smash is sentenced to death by Firing Squad as a public menace. However a car interrupts the execution by driving between the soldiers and their target, and a US Embassy official emerges from it with orders from the British government to hand Smash over to the custody of the Americans.
  • Idiocracy: The climax of the movie has Joe sentenced to death by Rehabilitation, which is a Blood Sport in the 2500s, when his plan to get crops growing again resulted in many people losing their jobs. The President of the United States himself comes in the arena to pardon him just seconds before Joe is set on fire once he sees proof that the plan worked after all.
  • The Death of Stalin: At the beginning of the movie, Beria, the head of the NKVD order his goons to arrest a number of people on a list. When the agents go into a an apartment block, a young man tells them his father is in their apartment, as he's dragged out his son droops his head in shame. Later, in the middle of the movie, the father is in line at a gulag, to be shot in the head. Before their execution, the condemned must yell, "Long Live Stalin!" However, as Joseph Stalin had died, and news had spread that he had recently been replaced by Gregory Malenkov, a condemned man switched from "Long Live Stalin!" to "Long Live Malenkov!" before he was killed. As a soldier puts his gun on the father's forehead, another soldier says that all the people in that gulag had been given a pardon by Malenkov, as a power move on Beria's part, and allowed to go home, where the son still can't bring himself to look his father in the face.
  • True Crime: The Governor calls to stay Frank Beechum's execution at the very last minute, when the first drug used in the execution has already been injected, thus the warden has to pull the needle out.

  • 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.
  • The Saga of the Jomsvikings: Of seventy Jomsvikings captured after the Battle of Hjorunga Bay, ten have already been beheaded when Jarl Erik is so impressed with their defiant behavior in the face of death that he saves Svein Buason by taking him into his retinue. When he makes the same offer to Vagn, Vagn makes it a condition that all the others are set free too, or else he would rather be executed. Jarl Erik accepts and grants them their lives.
  • 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.
  • Subverted in one of the Sven Hassel novels. The politically-connected parents of a soldier condemned to death convince a Nazi official to rescind the death penalty. Unfortunately after they leave the official changes his mind without notifying the parents, who write to their son and tell him the good news. When the reprieve doesn't come through, he unsurprisingly has a mental breakdown.
  • In Alguien debe morer by José Louis Martin Vigil, the judge Reyes finally, on the eve of the planned execution of Alipio Zadona, decides to call the court to tell them Zadona is innocent and that he was the guilty one. Unfortunately, during the call, he collapses. Zadona was still reprieved after the niece of the real guilty confess her aunt was the real killer.

    Live-Action TV 
  • The Adventures of Superman episode "Five Minutes to Doom" revolves around the Daily Planet reporters' efforts to do this for a wrongly convicted man while dodging attempts on their lives from the real killer, Corrupt Corporate Executive W.T. Wayne. When a thunderstorm cuts the power, Superman flies to the governor's office to get him to sign a stay of execution and arrives at the prison just as the switch is being thrown, using his Super-Strength to stop the lever.
  • In the 'Allo 'Allo! episode 'Firing Squashed', Herr Flick and von Smallhausen receive a lucky escape from being executed by General von Klinkerhoffen from Herr Flick's Godfather, Heinrich Himmler. This comes just after the pair think all hope is lost when a previous telegram from Berlin turned out to be from the General's tailor.
  • Ends up being heartbreakingly subverted in Babylon Berlin. Despite being just meters away with a stay of execution order in hand, Charlotte is forced to watch her friend get beheaded because the prison guards, who'd been bribed by the main antagonist of the season, refused to let her into the execution yard.
  • In Blackadder Goes Forth, 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—".
  • 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.
  • Criminal Minds:
    • Subverted in an episode. 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.
  • CSI did it in "The Execution of Catherine Willows", only to have the guy done in at the end anyway. Evidence was found that potentially exonerated him and caused a stay of execution, and it did prove his innocence -from being a serial killer. He was still guilty of the copycat murder he did.
  • Dark Shadows: During a late point of the 1840 timeline, 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.
  • Horribly subverted in the pilot episode of First Monday. The Supreme Court hears the case of a murderer who, after being convicted, had been struck by lightning, reducing his mental capacity. The justices have to determine whether executing him would violate the ban on cruel and unusual punishment. On the day of the execution, they decide to grant a reprieve, but since a storm interferes with phone communication, the prison doesn't get the call in time.
  • 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. Flash then produced hard evidence of the man's innocence to the guards so they wouldn't put him back in, and subdued the real criminal, who was in the room.
  • 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.
  • A variation occurs in Gang Related in which Daniel Acosta is kidnapped by rival gang the Metas, who threaten to kill him unless his father Javier pays a ransom. Daniel is spared death by sledgehammer at literally the last second when the hammer man Matias gets a phone call confirming that Javier has made the payment.
  • Grimm: One episode 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 nonlethal by itself.
  • The Hawaii Five-0 episode "O Ka Mea Ua Hala, Ua Hala Ia" is about a man, Brad Woodward, holding himself hostage in his car, threatening to shoot himself if Five-0 can't prove he didn't murder his wife. The team are unsure if they can do so before either Woodward or the SWAT team surrounding him loses patience and also can't be sure Woodward hasn't just lost his mind, is guilty, and is forestalling the inevitable. It's played straight in the end - he is in fact innocent and the team is able to prove it in time.
  • 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.
  • 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 Miami Vice episode "Forgive Us Our Debts," Crockett finds evidence that the man on death row for murdering his partner is actually innocent. He manages to get him pardoned less than an hour before his execution is scheduled. Turns out he's actually guilty, but he goes free anyway.
  • Monty Python's Flying Circus: During the Cycling Tour sketch from episode 34, Mr Pither is about to be executed by a Soviet firing squad. An officer is shown running toward the execution site yelling "Nyet!" (No!).
    FS Officer: A telegram? From the Kremlin! The Central Committee! It says... "Carry on with the execution".
    • Mr Pither then gets an additional unexpected reprieve of another sort - the firing squad misses. Several times. To the point where they eventually give up on trying to shoot him and instead attempt to kill him with a bayonet charge.
  • The Outer Limits (1995): A variation in "Afterlife". In lieu of execution, Sgt. Linden Stiles is given the choice of submitting to a military experiment. However, as far as the observers of the execution and the outside world were concerned, the execution went ahead as scheduled. Stiles himself thought that it had until he woke up.
  • In Oz, Cyril O'Reilly is spared execution at the last minute, only to be executed for real at a later date.
  • Prison Break: Lincoln Burrows already ate his last meal and is strapped in the electric chair for the (fake) murder he was framed for when a phone call from the Governor comes in to postpone his execution so that new evidence in his case can be reviewed. The Warden profusely apologizes to Lincoln and his family for the extremely callous manner in which the Governor handled it, who later refuses to pardon him anyway. Luckily, this does give Michael the time he needs to implement his escape plan.
  • Probe's "Metamorphic Anthropoidic Prototype Over You": Austin and Mickey try to get the Judge to issue a stay of execution to prevent Josephine (an orangutan suspected of murder) from getting a lethal injection. At that same time, an Animal Wrongs Group tries to free her from the pound.
  • Subverted in Reno 911! regarding the execution of Trudy's serial killer boyfriend Craig. Two of the other officers have gone to the governor's office to get a pardon. A call comes just before Craig is about to be executed, only for it to be a wrong number. It is later revealed that the two officers got trapped in a blizzard on the way to the governor's office.
  • 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 jailers argue that it might mean the Governor wants the execution carried out by candlelight.
  • Strange Luck: An episode of this short-lived D. B. Sweeney series 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.
  • Tales from the Crypt: The first episode, "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. In the end, when the executioner is being strapped to the chair, he makes the same type of comments.
  • The Twilight Zone (1959)'s "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.
  • The West Wing: An episode 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 realizes that he should — unfortunately, he realizes this too late, and the man is executed.


    Myths & Religion 
  • 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.
  • 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. note 
  • The First of the Books of Samuel tells how Saul charged the people with a vow that necessitated everyone refrain from eating food until they had slaughtered the Philistines. His son, Jonathan hadn't heard the vow or his father's instructions because he and his armor-bearer went ahead to start the battle. Jonathan comes across some honey and eats it. When Saul finds out, he has no qualms about Offing the Offspring but Jonathan's life is spared because the people vouch for him.

  • 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.
  • The Death Row scene of The Adding Machine mocks the very idea that Mr. Zero might be spared from his imminent execution (and he isn't):
    The Fixer: And now that your course is run — now that the end is already in sight, you still believe that some thunderbolt, some fiery bush, some celestial apparition will intervene between you and extinction. But it's no use, Zero. You're done for.

    Video Games 
  • 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: Sons of Liberty 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.
  • An unintentional example occurs in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. The game begins with the player character captured by Imperial soldiers and sentenced to be executed via beheading. A dragon shows up while their head is on the chopping block and panic ensues. The Dragonborn escapes in the carnage and one of the Imperial officers lets the player character go out of sympathy (assuming they didn't side with La Résistance and fight their way out). Rewatching shows that the dragon who attacked was the Big Bad, Alduin, who, in a case of Self-Fulfilling Prophecy, was trying to kill the Dragonborn before they got strong enough to defeat him.

    Visual Novels 
  • In the "Sacrificing Myself" ending of Steam Prison, Adage is mere seconds away from being executed for killing Glissade when Ines intervenes and convinces Sachsen to hire the prisoner on to work for the HOUNDS instead. With Glissade gone, they're in need of a medic and no doctor from the Heights is likely to take the job voluntarily, so Sachsen agrees to spare Adage in return for his services.

    Web Video 
  • BUCKETHEADS: A Star Wars Story. Due to the high desertion rate after the events of Return of the Jedi, the Empire has introduced decimation. Nova Squad is selected for punishment not because any of them deserted, but because they failed to stop others from doing so. The stormtroopers have to select colored pebbles from a bag—black for life, white for death. Sergeant Coven picks the latter and is about to be shot on the spot when Nova Squad receives a reprieve from Emperor Rax (on condition that they arrest a defector who used to be their commanding officer) so she keeps the white pebble as a reminder of the second chance she was given.

    Western Animation 
  • 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!
  • On The Simpsons, 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.
  • Superman: The Animated Series: 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. Superman tried the "governor's last-minute call" part, but the governor was out of town, and it was faster to save the guy then get to the governor.
  • 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 (that the power goes out due to a freak storm right before the switch to the electric chair is thrown also helped, or Shabaz would've died before the mayor pardoned him).
  • 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!
  • In Rick and Morty episode "The ABC's of Beth", Tommy's father was wrongfully accused of killing and eating his son. As his execution date is nearing, Rick and Beth find the missing Tommy in another dimension. But he refuses to return home and clear his father's name, so they make a clone from his finger to show up at the execution mere moments before the lethal injection was administered.
  • At the end of The Adventures of Tintin (1991) story arc "Tintin and the Picaros", the Thompson Brothers are to be executed as spies. While Tintin, General Alcazar and the others successfully overthrow General Tapioca; the prison doesn't receive news of the regime change in time and is preparing to carry out the execution. Tintin, Captain Haddock, and several Picaros quickly steal a parade float and drive it to the prison where they hold the firing squad at gunpoint as Colonel Alvarez orders the execution halted.

    Real Life 
  • Truth in Television for the royal prerogative of mercy in Britain, which often did grant clemency to the condemned only moments before their scheduled execution.
  • 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.
  • This same bit of political theater was repeated with 16 members of Shays' Rebellion who'd been sentenced to death, though John Bly and Charles Rose were still hanged for looting.
  • 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. There was one exception, though, which came for the authors of the Villarbasse massacre (the three who were arrested, 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 (to the point that the only one who escaped arrest ended up dead anyway at the hands of the Mafia), 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.
  • Pancho Villa had several close escapes from execution before and during The Mexican Revolution. The most famous incident was in spring 1912, when General Victoriano Huerta, finding Villa's insubordination (and serious devotion to the revolutionary President Fransisco I. Madero) infuriating, had Villa brought up on trumped-up charges of stealing a horse. Villa was convicted and was standing in front of the firing squad literally seconds before the order to fire when a telegram arrived from Madero commuting the sentence to imprisonment. There's a famous photo taken just moments before the reprieve arrived.
  • Thomas Bartlett Whitaker, who was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death in 2007, had his death sentence commuted to life imprisonment a mere 40 minutes before his scheduled execution on February 22, 2018. It was the first such commutation by Texas Governor Greg Abbott, and the first in the state since 2007.