It’s a staple of Hollywood – the condemned prisoner sits strapped to the gurney or electric chair, the executioner but a second away from administering the agent of death. Then the red phone on the wall rings, and the Warden answers to find out that the Governor/Court of Appeals has issued a stay. And someone in the observation room says, “Whew, that was a close one!” and everybody has a good laugh.
Anyway, what’s the closest we’ve come to this in real life? Have there been any cases of the literally-seconds-away-from-death reprieve?
Mind if I tack on a question to yours?
When someone does get a reprieve - what happens? Just go back and sit in a jail cell for life?
1901 one J.B. Brown was about to be hanged - he actually had the noose around his neck - when an administrative error was discovered. The Death ewarrant was made out in the name of the foreman of the jury. Without a valid death warrant he couldn’t be hanged, so he was returned to prison. He was later proved innocent.
A reprieve is not a commutation. It’s just a delay in the sentence; the sentence itself still stands. The length of the reprieve varies based on who issued it and the state. If it’s issued by a judge (usually called a “stay” rather than a reprieve) it remains in effect until the judge, or a higher court, lifts it. One example of the executive’s power to issue a reprieve is Texas (which was discussed nationally during Bush II’s first presidential campaign). There the governor has the power to issue one 30-day reprieve without the recommendation of the state’s Board of Pardons and Paroles. With the Board’s recommendation, the governor can issue multiple reprieves as long as the total length of the reprieve doesn’t exceed the Board’s recommendation.
OK, so how about commutations? I don’t know how they work either. Is the death sentence commuted in favor of, say life in prison? Or do they get sent home?
A commutation is a reduction in sentence. See for example former Illinois governor George Ryan’s blanket commutation of all death sentences in that state.
For the inmate to go home, the sentence would either have to be commuted to time served or a pardon would have to be issued.
It’s not uncommon with less than an hour to go, and in a few cases even less than 10 minutes. Don’t know which case had the closet call though.
From earlier times (IIRC sometime between WWI and WWII) in one case in the US the call came too late and the condemned was already in the process of being executed. In recent times this has AFAIK, only happened once. In 1999 in the the Philippines, a man had already received his lethal injection when the call came.
A slight hijack, in the 1940’s there was a case where the chair didn’t supply enough voltage and the condemned survived. This prompted the condemned to challenge his execution with the argument that he could not be executed twice. He lost and was again executed the following year, this time successfully.
As the story goes, Caryl Chessman lost his final appeal after a judge’s clerk dialled a wrong number minutes before his executuion. The cyanide pellets had already been dropped into the gas chamber by the time the call finally got through.