Quantum Leap (Season 3, Ep 50): Last Dance Before an Execution

Welcome back to my episode-by-episode recap of and reaction to Quantum Leap. The spoilers ahead are only through this episode. I provide a short summary at the top, a long and much more thorough recap below that, and a reaction section at the bottom.

My previous episode recaps can be found HERE.


Sam leaps into Jesus Ortega, a man slated for execution in two days. His friend Raul is also on death row. The two men admit to robbing a priest but insist that they did not kill him. Working with an attorney, Sam and Al discover that Sam’s leapee is in fact guilty. He went back after the robbery and murdered the man. Raul was innocent of the murder, though They also learn that the DA has influenced Raul’s illegal immigrant alibi to leave the state and not testify.

Moments before Sam is executed, Al, via Ziggy, gives Sam a detailed death row confession, in front of media witnesses, which ultimately sets everything right. Raul is freed, Moody is taken down for corruption, and Jesus is executed – but not until Sam leaps first.


via https://quantumleap.fandom.com/wiki/Last_Dance_Before_an_Execution

Sam leaps into Jesus Ortega (Stephen Domingas) as the man is about to be executed for the murder of a priest. Right as he is about to be electrocuted, the governor calls and gives Sam a forty-eight hour stay of execution. Sam and Al assume that they must be there to prove that Jesus and his buddy and fellow prisoner Raul Casta (Julio Oscar Mechoso), who was convicted as an accomplice to the murder of the priest, were innocent. The evidence is stacked against them with the murdered priest’s dying declaration that Jesus was the killer and two eyewitnesses. The real Jesus is no help, as he apparently believes himself to be dead already, and is comatose.

With the covert assistance of a Florida State Assistant District Attorney, Margerita Lorrea Tearsa (Jenny Gago), who thinks he’s innocent, he’s submitted an appeal to the Governor. All of this doesn’t sit well with Theodore Moody (played by James Sloyan), the DA who convicted him who is also now a candidate for Governor.

Fortunately, ADA Tearsa believes Jesus’ story and is eager to help him prove his innocence. In fact, because the ballistics report was inconclusive and the DA’s office claimed that it was conclusive, Tearsa organized that whole stay of execution in the first place. Under the pretense of Tearsa wanting to go over the case again, Sam questions Raul about the case. Raul’s daughter was sick and needed medicine that they couldn’t afford so Jesus suggested asking the church. The priest was sympathetic but would not give them any money for the poor for fear that they would buy alcohol with it. Jesus smashed the lock box and they took the six dollars inside of it. The priest was later shot and killed but Raul says he was home with his young daughter and a witness that has since gone missing.

The DA is running for governor on the basis of being hard on crime and so often pushes sentences up as high as he can and arranged for all five death row inmates to be there. In the original history, Tearsa is caught helping Jesus and not only fails to save him but is disbarred and ends up a social worker in an unemployment agency for the rest of her life. Sam tries to keep her from getting caught while helping himself.

One of the bullets is missing and Sam convinces Tearsa to go back to the church and to look for it. Al accompanies her and, with future technology, manages to find the bullet but cannot let Tearsa know. Fortunately, a young child who thinks that Al is an angel is able to communicate the news to Tearsa. No one could find it because it was hidden behind a painting. Al jubilantly reports this back to Sam and the two are convinced this will get Jesus off the hook for the murder and allow Sam to leap. However, Ziggy then reports to Al that the ballistics report on the bullet will prove conclusively that it came from Jesus’ gun and that he did indeed kill the priest, and Jesus… or rather, Sam, is now certainly going to die in the electric chair.

Tearsa feels betrayed and she rages at a horrified Sam. The DA shows up and threatens to destroy Tearsa. Sam tries to encourage her but she blows him off. The DA taunts Sam about his impending death and asks if he’ll do the ‘last dance’ (another name for when a prisoner has a futile struggle against the guards carrying him as the fear of death hits him just before he is placed in the chair) before his execution. A priest tries to get Sam to make peace with his fate but Sam refuses to believe that he won’t leap in time. As Sam is led away, Raul curses him for the murder and begs Sam to confess and save him.

At the very last second before he is muzzled, Al shows up instructing Sam to confess to the murder. It turns out that it was Raul and Tearsa Sam was there to save. Sam frees Raul and destroys the DA by providing the phone number and new name of the witness who was with Raul when the priest was killed. He was an immigrant who could not practice when he came to America and he was given the opportunity to practice in New York to keep him out of Florida. This witness gave a statement clearing Raul and had no idea that he was being searched for.

With the DA ruined and Raul and Tearsa achieving their happy endings, Sam starts to panic again as he is fitted with the mouth-piece and helmet for his execution. Al shouts at him to hurry up and leap but Sam can’t manage it until right as the electricity courses through the chair.


Sam leaps into a character named Jesus, a death row inmate who murdered a priest. Al appears in front of a group of devout Catholics, is seen by a child, and he tricks all of them into believing that the child sees an angel. This miracle proves (inadvertently) that Jesus is guilty. The point of the leap is for Jesus to confess his murderous guilt. If any Christians are offended by this episode… I get it. I understand. I think the writers could have told this story, with the same plot goals, without the murderer being named Jesus and the murder victim being a priest and without Al tricking a Christian child into believing she’s seen an angel. The framing of the plot (juxtaposing Christian themes and faith with the death penalty) in this way was clearly intentional and it felt a touch antagonistic toward Christianity. QL is generally very favorable to Christians. Sam is one, we have had episodes where he helped Church causes before, both he and Al think God is real and is actually in charge of deciding on the Leap destinations, the actual devil has appeared in an episode expressing anger about Sam’s work, etc.) So.. I don’t think the goal was to offend, but I’m not exactly sure what they were going for in this episode. I think the writers just got carried away with layering themes and stopped paying attention to the presentation of that layering.

The plot is designed to cast a bad light on capital punishment, but we do not get there in a clear or straight-forward way. We start initially with the politicized debate in the D.A.’s office about Jesus Ortega’s stay of execution. The District Attorney clearly cares more about the politics of the execution than the truth of whether or not the man might be innocent. That scene felt real and because we the audience go in without having formed an opinion on the case via CourtTV, the discussion feels gross.

“Don’t you worry Theo, we’re gonna have those two fried long before election day, I guarantee it.”

I was a little confused about why the writers decided an ADA (Tearsa) could be working covertly on Sam/Jesus’s appeal, and then I just became annoyed by her motivations. This was a case of the writers trying way too hard to make their point. She compares her boss to Fidel Castro, and the devil, she states outright that he is responsible for killing her people (Cuban immigrants), and then she justifies her own disregarding of the law on the grounds that Moody does it too. The stuff she cites as legal manipulations by Moody are probably more accurately reflective of a complaint against public defender being incompetent. (We do hear about more significant legal manipulations from Moody later on.) The stuff she attributes to the DA is also often the work of herself, or one of her fellow ADAs, not Moody himself. Sam even notes later that in their own legal defense efforts, seeking out technicalities, they are doing exactly what she accused Moody of doing. In any case it turns out Moody was right about Jesus all along but wrong and evil with regard to Raul. Sigh. This plot is just a lot cleaner if Tearsa is a public defender. But maybe her screwball story is part of the point, too.

Let’s see if I can sum up QL’s take on the criminal justice system:

  1. It’s politicized (prosecutors seek convictions to score political points rather than to do what is right) and wrongly placed motivations can lead to corruption,
  2. Sometimes prosecutors are easily-manipulated incompetents who break the law to assist criminals,
  3. Public defenders are inept and their ineptness aids bad guy prosecutors in their shenanigans,
  4. Sometimes sympathetic criminals are actually skilled lying sociopaths,
  5. Sometimes guilty criminals are also victims and deserving of sympathy, therefore
  6. The whole system is too dysfunctional to risk putting anyone’s life at stake on the basis of its fairness or accuracy.

Raul was innocent and without the help of a time-traveling duo, he would have died. Opposition to the death penalty is not a difficult position to sell to audiences (see ex: below.) Justice system mistakes happen – and sometimes the mistakes aren’t mistakes. When a life ends there is no way to give it back and apologize.

Of course, opposition to the death penalty *is* difficult to sell to someone who has had a loved one murdered. We see that in the episode from the reactions of those close to the murdered priest who want to see Jesus Ortega executed. The show doesn’t frame the execution at its end as an unjust act, either. This particular point of public policy is tough, hence the public debate on that issue rages on. The weight of the story seems to weigh toward the idea that everyone would be better off if the government did not have the authority to render a death penalty.

One weird aspect of the episode is Sam’s role in it. Since he is in captivity for the duration, a lot of the detective work is done by Al and Tearsa, instead of Al and Sam. That’s tricky given that Tearsa does not know about Al, nor can she talk to him. It’s also interesting how unhinged Sam is for most of the episode. Jesus Ortega is guilty, but Sam is innocent, and Sam is about to die for the other man’s sins. He ends up having a crisis of faith conversation with a priest, just before the execution. Sam is so unhinged that he has given up most pretense of being Jesus Ortega, other than saying as much out loud, and Sam is coming unraveled at the idea that God might let him die in this leap. He says aloud that God won’t let him die, but his eyes tell a more confused story. This is the type of episode designed to give actors an Emmy nomination and Scott Bakula freaks out really well.

The end of the episode is extremely tense. In the span of 30 seconds or so, Sam’s confession – fed to him by Al – leads to Raul’s freedom, Moody’s downfall, Tearsa’s forgiveness of Jesus (not to mention the saving of her law career.) Then just as the volts start running through Sam’s body, he finally leaps. If Ziggy had been more on top of things, and if Sam had been a little more willing to believe the Jesus might actually be guilty, Sam could have leaped about 2 minutes into this episode. Almost the entirety of the episode occurs to prove to Sam that Jesus was actually guilty. I liked the inversion of the usual QL episode plot format. The expectation going into a story like this is that the team will pull a rabbit out of their hat, in the final moments, which convinces everyone that the leapee is innocent. We eagerly anticipate that rabbit. They thus set right what once went wrong. Here the plot occurs to convince Sam that Jesus is guilty and it’s a well-done subversion. The thing that once went wrong was that a murderer never confessed.

Overall this is mixed bag episode for me. This is one of Scott Bakula’s best performances on the show. His panic and fear, and the sense that he felt like God was testing him, were palpable and well acted. I was highly annoyed initially while watching all of the legal proceeding nonsense, but once I figured out that legal nonsense is what they were going for, I embraced it and came around toward enjoying it. “Everyone is too incompetent or too corrupt to put anyone’s life in their hands” is a message I can believe and support. The biggest issue I had with the episode was the name of the leapee, Jesus Ortega. It felt too clever by half to have an unrepentant priest murderer named Jesus, on death row, and to write a story wherein Sam was facing the possibility that he might die for the other man’s sins. Make a name change to the character name and I think you remove the distracting question of “is this blasphemous, because it feels like blasphemy” from the proceedings. To be clear though, I do not think the writers were being malicious, only carelessly clever.

There was a lot going on in this one, so if you’ve seen it, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

4 thoughts on “Quantum Leap (Season 3, Ep 50): Last Dance Before an Execution

  1. Amazing
    Great recap of the episode! I agree that the plot could have been told without having the murderer named Jesus and the victim a priest. It was a bit antagonistic towards Christianity, but I do believe the writers were trying to make a statement about the flaws in the criminal justice system. My question is, do you think the episode effectively conveyed its message about the death penalty and the flaws in the justice system?

    1. I think that probably depends on one’s definition of “effective.” I think the show effectively portrayed a justice system that has a lot of potentially weak elements. However, the episode also seems to endorse the execution in the end, once the mistakes were cleared up. It might be asking too much to expect that the viewers would watch that and decide executions are a bad idea because usually the person on death row will not have help from time-travelers to clear up the mistakes in the legal process.

      So… I’d rate it as somewhat effective on the whole.

  2. Apologies for mild/moderate hijack. My GF was a public defender for 10 years, she accepts that TV is TV and nothing is realistic but she can’t help but be a little annoyed by the way they’re always portrayed as bumbling morons in mismatch suits with ketchup on their face and a cowlick.

    Obviously she has her own prejudices but what she tells people, which sounds right to me, is that unless you can spend big $$$ on a “celebrity” lawyer you’re much better off with a public defender on account of they’re actually in court every day working on criminal cases which most lawyers are not no matter how prestigious they are. Not to mention there’s at least a chance that a public defender is doing it because they care about justice and holding the state accountable to the law instead of racking up billable hours.

    I’m normally a “the media influence on society is overblown” guy but recently I was chatting with someone who’s kid is in some legal trouble and long story short I eventually realized that the media has so thoroughly maligned public defenders that she didn’t even think they were lawyers. She thought a public defender was a just a job you applied for that you didn’t even require you to go to law school.

    1. No apologies necessary. I don’t advertise this fact, because why would I, but I am an attorney, too. Your GF definitely has a point with respect to the way public defenders are portrayed.

      IMO, on kind of the normal criminal stuff, public defenders are usually going to do a really good job because 1) they care, and more importantly 2) they know the details of the process better than most, they have relationships with judges, opposing counsel, etc. Some of that type of thing matters more, depending on where you live. But I live in a Top 50 MSA and even then the legal world is pretty small. I’ve had a classmate from my section in law school run for mayor and another one who switched parties to run for district attorney. Maybe that dynamic is different in a Top 10 sized city. Relationships and familiarity matter most of the time though, and you get that in the public defenders office.

      In general, lawyers in the public defender field tend to get pretty overworked, they don’t make a ton of money, and they often end up burnt out at some point. That doesn’t mean they are bumbling and bad at their job, though. IMO, the TV caricature mostly comes from high profile cases where the lack of funding and the fact that they are over-worked really comes into play. The DA is usually just as under-funded and overworked as the public defender most of the time, but if it’s a big murder case, with a lot of political wind behind it, their pockets/resources/whatever can become a lot deeper. That can be a lot to overcome and the optics of that create an impression. You sometimes see it play out the other way in the media, too, where the poor prosecutors struggle against the high dollar firm and their rich guy client, but you don’t see that as much, because I think there’s a glamour element to being a prosecutor (thanks to shows like Law & Order.)

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