While traveling through Minnesota in the late-1990's I heard an old radio show rebroadcast of a sci-fi dramatization. It tells the story of bureaucracy gone horribly wrong, with the main proponent falsely charged for a minor infraction, but through delays, misinterpretations, obscure regulations, etc. he ends up being arrested, put in jail, and winding up on death row (for something akin to an unpaid parking ticket). I remember him desperately hoping for a governor's pardon shortly before his walk to the electric chair (but we know how bureaucracy works, don't we). The story was wry, pessimistic, but insightful about how bureaucracies work, and lasted only 10-20 minutes. However, I lost radio station reception before getting the title or author of the short story, or the name of the radio dramatization group who they were rebroadcasting. Anybody recall reading such a science fiction short story or hearing such a dramatization on the radio (probably done during the Golden Age of Radio Drama)?

  • 7
    lol are you sure this was fiction? I seem to remember seeing a real story about a man getting either death penalty or life in prison for shoplifting a coat from a Walmart
    – Probst
    Commented Apr 27, 2016 at 18:20
  • You reminded me of a track by DJ Shadow. It has an audio clip in the middle section that sounds like something you're talking about, but I'm not sure if it's the same thing. youtu.be/Jaibam_cVcE?t=4m15s Commented Apr 28, 2016 at 9:49
  • 1
    @Probst: Not as bad as a life or death sentence, but many people how ended up in prison for quite some time for apparently minor offences due to some states/countries "Three Strikes" laws. The third charge could be a petty minor crime but the length of the sentence can depend upon the other two and sometimes a minimum portion irrespective of the other crimes. Commented Apr 28, 2016 at 14:22
  • America is a nightmarish place to poor whites and A FULL BLOWN POLICE STATE TO BLACKS that (SOURCED): - locked up at least 3,000 people for LIFE IMPRISONMENT WITHOUT PAROLE for shoplifting and smoking pot 3 times! www.theguardian.com/world/2013/nov/13/us-prisoners-sentences-life-non-violent-crimes There's a story about a man who borrows "Kidnapped" by R. L. Stevenson from the library, but the computer thinks he kidnapped someone. Commented Apr 30, 2017 at 5:52

5 Answers 5


Null has identified the written story that radio play was based on as "Computers Don't Argue" by Gordon R. Dickson, which was also the answer to this old question and this one. I'm adding this answer in an attempt to identify the radio play itself.

A "semi-dramatized" reading of "Computers Don't Argue", with musical accompaniment, was aired in 1978 on the program Mindwebs from WHA Radio in Madison, Wisconsin. If WHA rebroadcast that program in the late 1990s, you might have picked it up on your car radio while driving in southeastern Minnesota. You can listen to it at the Internet Archive.

  • 2
    This deserves more upvotes for the great detective work!
    – Null
    Commented Apr 28, 2016 at 15:37

The short story that the radio play was based on may be Gordon R. Dickson's Computers Don't Argue. A similar question was asked not too long ago, and this story was the answer to it. The story is written as a series of letters, many of which are generated by a computer or written by bureaucrats.

The original minor offense was for an overdue book payment, except it was a computer error. The "offender", a man named Walter Child, had ordered the book "Kim" by Rudyard Kipling but was instead sent the book "Kidnapped" by Robert Louis Stevenson. Mr. Child sent back "Kidnapping", asked for his copy of "Kim", and refused to pay the bill for "Kidnapping". The computer system used by the book club he ordered from continued to send him bills for the "Kidnapping" book and started escalating to a collection agency.

Eventually, through additional computer and bureaucratic errors, Mr. Child was accused of kidnapping and murder (for kidnapping Robert Louis Stevenson, who was presumed murdered as part of the kidnapping by the legal systems' computers). The computerized system also judged Mr. Child guilty, which landed him on death row.

There are mentions of attempts to get a last-minute pardon from the governor, which matches your description. For example:

As I was talking to Warden Magruder in my cell, here, news was brought to him that the Governor has at last returned for a while to Illinois, and will be in his office early tomorrow morning, Friday. So you will have time to get the pardon signed by him and delivered to the prison in time to stop my execution on Saturday.

The story ends with

the governor issuing a pardon for Mr. Child before Child is executed. However, the last letter is an automated notice of a "failure to route [the pardon] properly". The governor is instructed to resubmit the document on the Tuesday after Child's scheduled execution (the next day that the routing service is open). The notice also instructs the governor to submit a form with his supervisor's signature explaining his authority for submitting a document with a "TOP RUSH" category. The governor is threatened with arrest if he fails to submit the form, and is told there are no exceptions...


Could you be thinking of The Jigsaw Man, by Larry Niven?

In this story, a man escapes from prison and destroys an organ transplant facility after being sentenced to death for traffic violations.

  • 1
    I thought of this one as well...this story definitely includes Death Row (aka enforced Organ Harvesting) because of either a parking ticket or running a red light.
    – Xantix
    Commented Apr 27, 2016 at 22:21
  • @user14111 it looks like the radio dramatization has been identified in a different answer...of course we can't know for sure until the OP chooses an answer. Until then suggestions which match some of the details are perfectly fine, especially based on a recollection from 15-20 years ago. :)
    – Xantix
    Commented Apr 28, 2016 at 5:08
  • @Xantix The end of the story reveals that it was a series of violations that led to the sentence, including red-light running and speeding.
    – user41830
    Commented Apr 28, 2016 at 14:40

Perhaps the classic The Trial by Franz Kafka? In this story a man is charged with an unspecified crime and put through a huge bureaucratic system over a long period of time. In the end, the man is executed.

The original story does not specify the original infraction, nor does it feature any sort of pardon from the governor (nor an electric chair), but those could have been added for a radio adaptation.

  • seems that whatever story this was, it was indeed inspired by kafka
    – Rigolletto
    Commented May 17, 2016 at 7:19

it probably isn't the right story, but I remember a Mark Twain science fiction story, "The London Times of 1904", about an Austro-Hungarian inventor falsely condemned to death who finds proof (a television clip, I think) he is innocent but is executed anyway due to inflexible bureaucracy or something.

No doubt there have been many such stories vaguely similar to the once asked about.

  • 1
    Mark Twain died in 1910. And television only started to become widely available in 1920. So I'm going to guess this is NOT the right answer. Commented Apr 30, 2016 at 5:36
  • Added title from scifi.stackexchange.com/a/252064/23243 although he did get a reprieve sure to the videophone proof.
    – FuzzyBoots
    Commented Apr 23, 2022 at 13:27
  • @Meat Trademark Because Mark Twain could not possibly write a science fiction story, and because nobody - not even an inventor of television - could possibly imagine or write about television before it was actually invented? Commented Apr 29, 2022 at 18:49
  • You tell that old comment! Happy birthday to my lame comment. 6 years old today! Never too late to be angry on the internet... Don't forget that the correct answer was posted prior to my admittedly bad comment. Over six years ago. Commented May 1, 2022 at 0:15

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.