Acquitted Too Late

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A character has been wrongfully convicted of a capital crime. His 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 his date of execution has been set.

The lawyer finally talks to judge and gets a stay, or the parents or girlfriend finally gets 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.

The character has been Acquitted Too Late.

The namer of this trope is And Then There Were None, Agatha Christie's 1939 mystery novel, which, despite the name, does not include an example of that trope.

As a Death Trope, all Spoilers will be unmarked ahead. Beware.

Examples of Acquitted Too Late include:

Film[edit | hide]

  • 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 five years ago, Frank.

  • Pretty much required by law in every Giallo (violent Italian whodunit, featuring amateur sleuths, buckets of gore, and high body counts) ever made. Warning: Italian splatter-opera spoilers galore!
    • Master of the 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.
    • 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.
  • The central point of The Ox Bow Incident. Posse lynches suspected cow rustlers; they learn of their error when they get back to town.


Literature[edit | hide]

  • A nasty example (I've forgotten the book) where the police were stumped in a case of an extremely horrific serial killer and so arrested a suspect just so it looked as if they were keeping busy. Unfortunately they forgot to pass this info down to the prison wardens so they stood by and tolerated gang rape of the accused, resulting in him committing suicide.
  • 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.
  • In Crimson by Gord Rollo, a man on death has been charged with 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 acquitted. 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 Harry Potter book series, Sirius Black had been sent to Azkaban for crimes he didn't commit and wasn't allowed to have a trial. He didn't live long enough to see the real culprit being exposed.
    • Within Harry Potter, we learn that Voldemort had his uncle 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 Voldemort's uncle died in prison before the ministry reached their decision.
  • In The Lincoln Lawyer, Jesus Menendez had been framed with rape and murder. While he even lived to see himself pardoned once the real culprit had been caught, he caught AIDS while in prison.
  • 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 don't believe him and he is executed. Turns out he was telling the truth. Oh, and the colony? Roanoke Island.


Live Action TV[edit | hide]

  • Classic Twilight Zone episode "Shadow Play". A man about to be executed, Adam Ritchie, 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 Ritchie that this belief means that Ritchie 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 Ritchie has been executed. After Ritchie's death the entire set fades to black. It fades in with a different cast of characters, except for the protagonist. Turns out Ritchie was right!
  • An episode of Cold Case appropriately titled Death Penalty: Final Appeal had a man falsely accused 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.
  • 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 dude in prison 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.
    • Also occurred 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 shanked 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.
  • Law and Order Special Victims Unit: An episode starts off with a 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.
  • A similar example from Law and Order is when 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 in 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 has been murdered in prison by the time the episode takes place. The survivor is later acquitted.
  • In one episode of the show In Justice, a gentle retarded man was arrested for an unsolved murder, and sentenced to death. It's never made clear, but the strong suggestion is that he's innocent. His lawyers try every last-minute appeal they can think of to delay his execution and they fail. He dies on schedule, and the episode—and the case, presumably—is closed.
  • 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.
  • Inverted in Prime Suspect 5 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.
  • Happens a lot in Chinese/Hong Kong TV dramas. If set in the past, executions are done quite a few li 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.
  • An episode of Murdoch Mysteries had a scene like this, that drove the executioner into a depression:

Condemned Psycho: Hey old man, how does it feel killing an innocent?
Executionner: 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.

  • A sideplot in one episode of The Mentalist concerned a convicted arsonist that Rigsby put away in his days as an arson investigator. The arsonist gets shanked prior to the episode's opening because one of his kids died in the fire (child killers don't do well in prison). Then the other kid goes to find Rigsby to insist on his father's innocence, Rigsby reinvestigates, and an expert he consults determines that the fire was likely electrical and an accident. Thankfully some justice was done in this instance, as the landlord gets arrested for negligent homicide.
    • Cold Case had a silimar plot. Differences include: both kids being killed; the convicted one's brother being the one to defend; and no explicit mention of the landlord being punished.
  • 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.


Music[edit | hide]

  • "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.


Theater[edit | hide]

  • In Sophocles' Antigone, by the time Creon realizes he was being an asshole and Antigone should go free, she's already killed herself.


Video Games[edit | hide]

  • In the fourth case of Phoenix Wright 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 Uber-Yandere Dahlia Hawthorne, who has Fawles wrapped around her finger so tightly that he commits suicide on the stand rather than testify against her.
    • No worries, though. Mia get Dahlia later and when she pops up yet again, Phoenix has her number.
  • 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.


Western Animation[edit | hide]

  • 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 with 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?"
  • Subverted in an episode of Superman: The Animated Series: 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 of course, simply flies in, disperses the gas, and gets him out.


Real Life[edit | hide]

  • Many people who are against the death penalty in the United States argue that this trope is VERY common. Depending on whose statistics you believe, they might be right.
    • Others would argue that even if this trope has only been Truth in Television once in the entire history of the United States, that one time is far too many times. Indeed, the utilitarian philosopher John Stuart Mill put forward that this is the main reason that one should oppose the death penalty, if one does so. He expends a great deal of ink dismissing with cold precision and thoroughness all kinds of arguments against the death penalty—except this one. The fact that we cannot be certain of any condemned person's innocence means that we necessarily run the risk of killing an innocent person—and it's hard to think of anything worse than that other than variations on that theme (e.g. torturously killing an innocent person, killing a large number of innocent persons, etc.).
    • It should be noted that people on death row have a lot of opportunity for an acquittal. Guilty or not, if they haven't gotten an acquittal yet, they probably aren't going to.
  • Joan of Arc was found innocent by the court...25 years after she was burnt at the stake.
  • World War Two Alfred Jodl was acquitted six years after his execution.
  • Capital punishment was abolished in Britain after an execution for murders which, it turned out sixteen years later, were committed by someone else. Commemorated in the folk song "Go Down, Ye Murderers":

They sent Tim Evans to the drop for a crime he didn't do
'Twas Christie was the murderer, the judge and jury too

    • More precisely; Evans was executed for murdering his daughter (he was suspected of also having murdered his wife, but not tried for this). The later enquiry found that he probably didn't murder his daughter, hence he was pardoned; but that he probably *did* murder his wife. (FWIW, Evans claimed that Christie murdered them both. Christie confessed to murdering Evans's wife, but not his daughter).
  • Derek Bentley was pardoned in 1998 for ordering the murder of a police officer, for which he hanged in 1953.
  • 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 murdering 13-year old Mary Phagan one of the factory's workers, based on what would later turn out to be false testimony. 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 calling themselves "The Knights of Mary Phagan" broke into the prison, kidnapped Frank, and took him to the woods where he was hung. Neither the real killer of Mary Phagan (a janitor at the factory) 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 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.
  • Timothy Cole was arrested and convicted of rape in 1985 in Lubbock, Texas and sentenced to 25 years in prison. He died in prison 1999. 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 he was officially pardoned in 2009. nearly ten years after his death.
  • Patrick "Giuseppe" Conlon, one of The Maguire Seven died in prison in 1980. 11 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, on 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.
  • On April 19, 1989, a young woman was viciously attacked in 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 the victim (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 were attacking someone else 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 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 notorious crimes in New York City history can never be prosecuted, and that the jogger, Tricia 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 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, and 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 acquitted Arthur Andersen of its charges, however it was too late. Arthur Andersen went from one of the largest auditing firm to be practically 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.